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Francis Arinze of Nigeria

Ambassador to Other Faiths

Sunday, April 3, 2005; Page A40

LAGOS, Nigeria

The Roman Catholic Church had been in southeastern Nigeria for just half a century when Francis Arinze was born there in 1932.

At age 9, he gave up his parents' traditional African religion to be baptized into the church, at a time when desire for education and modernity was often synonymous with conversion to Christianity.

Cardinal Francis Arinze
Cardinal Francis Arinze
Cardinal Francis Arinze (Shawn Baldwin - AP)

His rise in his adopted faith was swift. He entered a junior seminary at 15 and was ordained a priest 11 years later. In 1967, after advanced study at universities in Rome and London, he succeeded an Irishman as archbishop of Onitsha, a riverside city in southern Nigeria.

As a convert and a citizen of a country where about half the people are Muslim, he had special qualifications for the job Pope John Paul II gave him in 1985, head of the Vatican body now known as the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue. It is in this role as ambassador to other faiths that he is largely known outside Nigeria and the Vatican today.

"The Church has to be at home in every culture, while not being tied down or imprisoned by any," he wrote in 1973.

He established relations with key Islamic bodies in Saudi Arabia, princes in the Persian Gulf region and American Muslims. In 1995, he attended a conference of Catholics and Muslims in Baltimore and was presented with a plaque inscribed with sayings of the prophet Muhammad.

At a time of perceived confrontation between Christianity and Islam, electors in Rome might view his interfaith channels of communication as a useful attribute for a pope. And, being an African, he may be viewed in more neutral terms by non-Westerners than a European pope would be.

In October 2002, he was named head of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, which reviews liturgical texts, and continues in that position.

Known for a self-deprecating wit and ready smile, Arinze had a long acquaintance with John Paul, having been the man in charge during a visit the pontiff made to Nigeria in 1982. John Paul made Arinze a cardinal in 1985, the centennial of the church's presence in Nigeria.

Despite flexibility on matters regarding relations with other cultures, Arinze, 72, is known as a conservative on such issues as the ordination of women and abortion.

As he said in one of his pastorals: "We are not the inventors of our Faith; we are its custodians."

-- Dulue Mbachu

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