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Africa's candidate for pope 'a peacemaker'

13 February 2013, 08:18

Accra - Ghana's Peter Turkson, seen by some as Africa's top candidate to become the next pope, has served as a peacemaker and left what his supporters call a lasting impact on his nation's development.

The 64-year-old cardinal and head of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace is considered progressive by some supporters, and his mediation during a tight Ghanaian election in 2008 has won him high praise.

But his decision to show a recent synod a video criticising Muslims has damaged his chances according to some, who accuse him of lacking key interreligious sensibilities.

Following Benedict XVI's announcement on Monday that he will retire, there have been calls for an African to be elected pope.

Some advocating such a move point out that the Roman Catholic Church has seen rapid growth in Africa, currently home to at least 15% of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics, in contrast to other regions of the world.

Among Ghana's three million Catholics, the Rome-educated Turkson is considered one of the most esteemed clergymen in the country, respected for his affability and knowledge of scripture.

"We always referred to him as leader of the Catholic Church in Ghana" during his time as archbishop of the coastal city of Cape Coast, said Charles Palmer Buckle, the archbishop of Accra who knew Turkson from their days in seminary together.

Controversial issues

While some have described him as somewhat progressive, those familiar with him in Ghana said he was likely to stick to the Church's traditional teachings on hot-button issues like same-sex relationships.

"Regarding these controversial issues like same-sex [marriage] and things like this, I wouldn't think that he would be so liberal as to change them," said Matthias Kobena Nketsiah, archbishop of Cape Coast who succeeded Turkson in that role.

Turkson has previously stated that he supports the church's ban on condom use, though did leave the door open to allowing their use by married couples where one partner is infected.

"Some say that we can control the disease through the use of condoms, but that's where the church has difficulty," Turkson said in a 2010 interview with US Catholic magazine.

"Some claim that that can still be studied, but to date, I think the position of the church on condoms is pretty clear."

After coming up through seminaries in Ghana and the United States, Turkson was appointed archbishop of Cape Coast in 1992, serving in that capacity till 2003, when he became a cardinal.

As an archbishop, Buckle said Turkson was able to bridge the gulf between church and government in Ghana, a West African nation of 24 million.

Despite being home to a booming economy and a relatively stable democracy, deep poverty persists in many areas of the country.

"He offered some sort of spiritual leadership even to the political realm of our nation," Buckle said.

Tremendous impact

He saw that seminaries and hospitals were repaired, and devised ways for priests to minister to far-flung communities of Catholics who were unable to make it to church, Nketsiah said.

During Ghana's 2008 election, when less than 1% of the vote separated two candidates and many feared political violence, Turkson mediated between the two parties.

"The whole country looked up to him. But for him we would have descended into chaos after the 2008 elections," Nketsiah said. "So he had a tremendous impact on the civic life of Ghana."

Turkson repeated the peacemaker role in 2011, when Benedict sent him to Ivory Coast to mediate between Laurent Gbagbo, who lost a presidential election but refused to concede, and his opponent Alassane Ouattara.

But he was sent with violence already raging in a conflict that would eventually kill at least 3 000 people. Turkson found himself stuck in Ghana, unable to access the neighbouring country's main city Abidjan.



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