YAMOUSSOUKRO, IVORY COAST, SEPT. 10 -- Pope John Paul II today blessed a huge multimillion-dollar basilica praised by some as a glorious gift to God and derided by others as a scandalous show of opulence.
The consecration of the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace wrapped up the last leg of the pope's 10-day tour of four African nations.
Tight security was in place around this city of 70,000, the home of President Felix Houphouet-Boigny, to prevent anti-government demonstrations by recently legalized opposition parties.
Houphouet-Boigny, who has ruled the country as a one-party state since independence from France in 1960, offered the basilica as a gift to the Catholic Church during a private audience with the pope at the Vatican last year.
The colossal church, rising out of a former cocoa plantation, resembles St. Peter's in Rome with its imposing dome and long arms of marble columns surrounding a plaza.
The basilica, set on a 320-acre site, is 525 feet high at its tip, compared with 452 feet at the top of the cross on the dome of St. Peter's. The basilica has 15,000 panels of hand-blown French stained glass and can accommodate 7,000 people seated and another 11,000 standing. The entire grounds can accommodate more than 350,000 worshipers.
The architect, Pierre Fakhoury, has described the new basilica as the biggest church in Christendom. Vatican officials, however, said they believed St. Peter's is larger.
The hardwood pews were packed to capacity today, and in the plaza outside, tens of thousands of pilgrims followed the service on television monitors and loudspeakers. There were no major incidents, but police clubbed some people pushing out of the basilica after the pope left, photographers said.
The cost of the basilica, which was completed last year, has been a source of controversy in this once-prosperous West African nation now suffering its worst economic crisis in 30 years of independence.
Houphouet-Boigny said the basilica cost $140 million, was built on his own land and was paid for with his family's money.
But published reports have said the price tag could be as high as $300 million, and the president's opponents accused him of misappropriating state money for the project. Whatever the cost, critics have said the money would have been better spent on education and health care for the poor.