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Vatican presses Nigeria for dissidents' release

Pope and Abacha
Pope John Paul II with Sani Abacha  

Pope John Paul II begins pilgrimage Saturday

In This Story: March 21, 1998
Web posted at: 7:14 p.m. EDT (1914 GMT)

ABUJA, Nigeria (CNN) -- Just hours after Pope John Paul II arrived in Nigeria Saturday, Vatican officials began pressing the country's military regime to release well-known opposition figures and journalists from prison.

While the pope was meeting privately with Nigerian leader Gen. Sani Abacha, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano handed a list of 60 names to Nigerian Foreign Minister Tom Ikimi, asking that clemency be extended to them.

Vatican officials didn't disclose what names were on their list, but papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said they include "all the names best known to the public."

The best known of dozens of detainees are Moshood Abiola, the presumed winner of the 1993 elections and former military ruler Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo.

Navarro-Valls said Ikimi assured Cardinal Sodano that the list would be studied and a response considered.

Amnesty International estimates that there are about 200 political prisoners being held in Nigeria. A similar request made to Cuban authorities during John Paul's sojourn there in January resulted in the eventual release of about 300 prisoners.

Pope talks human rights with Gen. Abacha

Nigerian children
Nigerian children await glimpse of Pope John Paul II  

The pope met with Gen. Abacha, a Muslim who seized power in a 1993 military coup, for about 30 minutes Saturday at the State House in the federal capital of Abuja.

Navarro-Valls did not give details of what was discussed during the meeting, but he did confirm that human rights were on the agenda. Abacha's regime has been internationally ostracized because of its human rights record, including jailings and executions of political dissidents.

Earlier, upon his arrival in Abuja, John Paul wasted no time in addressing the military government's approach to human rights.

"You are all called to muster your wisdom and expertise in the difficult and urgent task of building a society that respects all its members in their dignity, their rights and their freedom," the pope said.

John Paul to beatify Nigerian monk

The main purpose of the pope's three-day trip -- the 82nd international journey of his papacy and his second visit to Nigeria -- is Sunday's beatification in the city of Onitsha of ascetic monk Cyprian Michael Iwene Tansi, who died in 1964. Beatification is a preliminary step before sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church.

The Nigerian monk will be the first West African to be so honored.

Although the pope's visit is billed as pastoral, Abacha treated it like a state visit, including arranging cannon salutes at the airport. The Nigerian leader accompanied the pope down the red carpet leading from the plane.

"I call on Allah to continue to grant you long life and good health," Abacha said, using the Muslim reference to God.

1 million expected for Monday Mass

Welcome banner

Combining faith and festivity, Nigerians began arriving in bush-taxis and buses at a huge field outside the capital Saturday, two days before an open-air Mass by the pontiff.

There was a carnival atmosphere in the field in Abuja, where vendors set up drink stands in the hot, dry expanses around the large, green-roofed dais where the pope will officiate.

"He has come to bless us," said 9-year-old Philip Akabuse, one of the early arrivals. Officials expect up to 1 million people at Monday's Mass.

A smaller, more sedate reception awaited the pope at the Nnamdi Azikiwe airport, 25 miles outside Abuja. A few modest posters at the airport read "Welcome Your Holiness."

Vatican calls for election promise to be kept

The pope last traveled to Nigeria on a state visit in 1982, when the nation -- though struggling with corruption and widespread mismanagement of oil revenues -- was enjoying one of its few civilian governments since independence from Britain in 1960.

Less than two years after that visit, the military overthrew President Shehu Shagari and has been in power ever since.

This time, the pope's visit comes at the invitation of the Roman Catholic hierarchy in a country mired in crime and political tension, where Christians are a minority.

Of Nigeria's 115 million people, about 45 percent are Christian of various denominations, 45 percent Muslim and the remainder are adherents of local religions.

Abacha -- who voided the results of 1993 presidential elections, jailed Abiola and took power himself -- has promised to hold free and fair presidential elections in August.

"The Holy See hopes that the promises made will be fulfilled," Navarro-Valls said.

Correspondent Gayle Young and Reuters contributed to this report


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