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West African cardinal has experience with tough Church problems

Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- If cardinals look to the continent where Catholicism is growing the fastest for the next pope, they might zero in on Cardinal Christian Wiyghan Tumi of Douala, Cameroon.

The 74-year-old West African cardinal speaks seven languages and has firsthand experience with two of the most difficult problems facing the Catholic Church in the third millennium -- relations with Muslims and vocations.

Cardinal Christian Wiyghan Tumi of Douala, Cameroon, is pictured in an undated file photo. (CNS photo from Catholic Press Photo)

Islam is growing in his country, and the cardinal did not hesitate to confront the government when it was dominated by Muslims and when the rights of Christians were threatened. But he also has promoted dialogue with Muslims, on the local level and as a member of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.

A former seminary rector and philosophy teacher, Cardinal Tumi is actively concerned with the proper formation of priests and has strongly defended church teachings on priestly celibacy.

He has served as president of the Cameroonian bishops' conference and president of the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar.

In recent years, Cardinal Tumi has been one of Cameroon's most outspoken voices, demanding an end to government corruption and restrictions on press freedoms. He also has accused the country's police force of torture and carrying out summary executions.

In a September 2004 speech delivered in Milan, Italy, the cardinal said his country was ruled by "the law of the strongest" and that elections were continually marred by ballot rigging.

He said "the facade of democracy" in Cameroon "exists more for creating a pleasing, external image than for promoting individual and collective liberties. The proof is (found in) electoral fraud."

Since independence from France and Great Britain in 1961, Cameroon "has never had transparent elections," he told Fides, the news agency of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, in October 2004, soon after election results handed President Paul Biya a third consecutive term in office.

The cardinal, along with the nation's other bishops, has repeatedly called on Biya -- in power since 1982 -- to let the country move toward political pluralism.

Cardinal Tumi said it was the duty of the church "to denounce the dishonesty of some government officials" since "the church has a duty to educate people about honesty."

In a September 1999 interview with Catholic News Service, he spoke of the need to develop African nations, saying if governments did their jobs, the church would not have to be so involved.

"Development of the person is most important," he added. "Development of things comes after or concurrently."

Pope John Paul II appointed Cardinal Tumi president of the synods of bishops on priestly formation in 1990 and on Africa in 1994. In 2004, the pope appointed him to the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments.

The pope also chose Cameroon as the site for the unveiling of his 1995 apostolic letter on Africa, which called for an ambitious program of evangelization on the continent.

Since the late 1970s, the Catholic Church in Africa has nearly doubled in size, but Catholics still make up only 15 percent of the continent's population.

A strong believer that Africa must guide its own destiny, Cardinal Tumi said at the 1994 synod that the quick evacuation of foreigners from Rwanda and other parts of Africa when ethnic and political violence began showed that Africans must be the chief promoters of peace and development on the continent.

"When all is said and done, I do not blame them (foreigners) for leaving; it's normal, and it proves that Africans must build Africa," he said. "We should not wait for the outside world."

Outsiders can give assistance, he added, but "peace must be built in Africa by Africans."

Born Oct. 15, 1930, in Kikaikelaki, a town in the Diocese of Kumbo, Cameroon, Christian Tumi received much of his seminary and postgraduate education outside his country.

Following studies at a minor diocesan seminary in Cameroon, he transferred to a major seminary in Nigeria.

After his ordination April 17, 1966, he did parish work and taught in a minor seminary before pursuing postgraduate studies at the University of Lyon, France, and the Catholic University of Fribourg, Switzerland, where he earned a doctorate in philosophy.

Besides his native language, Nso, Cardinal Tumi speaks Pidgin, Hausa, Latin, English, French and German.

He was rector of the Bambui seminary from 1973 until his appointment in 1979 as bishop of Yagoua. He become coadjutor archbishop of Garoua, in the Muslim-dominated northern part of Cameroon, in 1982 and archbishop in 1984.

When he was named Cameroon's first cardinal in 1988, some observers expressed surprise that Pope John Paul had passed over the archbishops of Cameroon's capital city, Yaounde, and its largest city, Douala. But others said Cardinal Tumi, the youngest of the three archbishops, was chosen because of his age and vigor.

Three years later, Cardinal Tumi was named archbishop of Douala.

Cardinal Tumi often has brought a unique viewpoint to discussions within the church's highest circles.

During a 1991 assembly of the world's cardinals on life issues, Cardinal Tumi said an African perspective on the "culture of death" would go beyond the traditional topics of abortion and euthanasia.

Listing what Africans see as 12 categories of deadly threats to life, Cardinal Tumi said they range from lack of food to attacks by "dangerous animals." While Westerners might be amused at the animal threat, he said, even the mosquito brings frequent death on his continent.

Among the dangerous facts of life in Africa, he cited unemployment, rampant petty crime and corruption, racism and tribalism, disease, poisons, traffic accidents, biological manipulation, birth control, weapons sales and natural catastrophes.



Copyright 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved