WHEN the Pope blessed the altar of the basilica of Our Lady of Peace in the Ivory Coast on Monday he must have wondered what future there was for a building surpassing in size St Peter's in a country so poor that most of its children remain unprotected from disease by vaccination.
When President Felix Houphouet-Boigny began the building of this modem-day colossus he announced his intention of giving it all — lock, stock and barrel — to the Vatican. The Vatican was, not surprisingly, alarmed at the prospect of becoming party to an enterprise it regarded as an embarassment to the church. But Pope John Paul eventually accepted President HouphouetBoigny's offer, albeit on condition that the president pay the basilica's annual maintenance bill of $1.5 million and build a complex of hospitals and social clubs for his impoverished population. What possessed the Vatican to accede to the pious but hugely extravagant project of President HouphouetBoigny is unclear. Although the basilica has facilities to hold congregations of up to 335,000 in the open air, the town in which it is based, Yamoussoukro, has only 30,000 inhabitants, of whom just 4,000 are Catholic.
hi defence of the project, Rome points to the pride that Africa could derive from such a monument. Were not the cathedrals of Europe built in difficult times, it asks. But the basilica is about as necessary in Yamoussoukro as an airport would be in the Sahara desert, and the Vatican will rue the day it lent its name to this old man's African folly.