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Catholics fight for heart of Africa

From Thursday's Globe and Mail

Johannesburg — Selina Leroba was 11 when she was baptized a Roman Catholic in a small black township outside Johannesburg in 1975. She doesn't remember much about it: The priests said she had to do it, so she did. Her parents, from Lesotho, practised their ancestors' traditional worship, but they did not interfere, merely glad the missionaries were giving their daughter an education.

Today, Ms. Leroba lives in Soweto, where she ekes out a living as a part-time maid in the white suburbs. She goes to church six times a week — but not the old stone Catholic church in town. She worships in a converted township factory that is home to the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, an evangelical denomination pulling in faithful faster than it can find room to seat them.

"Monday, we pray for the success of our small businesses; Tuesday, we heal the sick; Wednesday, to grow our spirituality; Thursday, for relations with our families; Friday, for people who have troubles like bad dreams; Saturday, for marriages or a good partner to marry; and Sunday, for spiritual growth again," she explained.

There is lots of music in the services conducted in English, isiZulu and her native Sesotho. It's all much more appealing than Catholicism ever was, Ms. Leroba said.

"We serve God more. In Catholic church, only the priest prays, and only for an hour! Here we go out and evangelize, and they tell you useful things; how to pray when you're sick, how to pray for your marriage."

The death of Pope John Paul II and the news that Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze is on the short list of likely successors have focused attention on Catholicism in Africa.

The church remains a strong force — one in 10 of the world's Catholics lives in Africa — and it is a primary provider of education and health care in many of the poorest countries. But like other traditional Christian churches, it is seeing its congregations lured away by evangelical and charismatic faiths.

Ms. Leroba's prayer calendar represents much of the reason why.

Christianity came to Africa about 50 years after the death of Jesus, spread by disciples down through North Africa as far as Ethiopia, where the Coptic Church survives today.

The next to come were Catholics — Portuguese and Spanish explorers who came ashore to erect crosses in the sand at points such as the Cape of Good Hope. The big conversion push came in the 1800s, with organizations such as the London Missionary Society.

Today, the continent is home to an estimated 390 million Christians, three times the number 35 years ago and up from 8.7 million in 1900. The Centre for the Study of Global Christianity, in Massachusetts, says the technical "centre" of the Christian world (the point at which there are equal numbers of Christians to the north, south, east and west) is Timbuktu, in mostly Muslim Mali. It predicts this point will shift to Nigeria in the next century.

About half of Africa's Christians belong to the Catholic and Anglican churches, traditionally the strongest faiths here. But more and more African Christians are leaving these churches for new denominations that are spreading as fast or faster than in North America.

The Christian churches also face stiff competition from Islam, which is spreading at an even faster pace in Central and East Africa.

But among the Christian denominations, it is the evangelicals and Pentecostals who "have a willingness for a cultural fit — the ability to contextualize or indigenize by going into local culture and adapting the local African culture," said Johannes Hofmeyr, co-author of African Christianity and professor of church history at the University of Pretoria, "and then the healing and deliverance approach, with explicit promises and coping mechanisms for various personal problems taught in these churches."

The faithful ask God for very specific protection — it could be from malaria, carjacking or HIV infection — and the strategy is popular in societies where most people have doubts about their day-to-day survival. For example, the city of Monrovia had 75 churches before Liberia's civil war began in the early 1990s. There are now more than 200.

Prof. Hofmeyr said these denominations also capitalize on their skill at moving into rural areas and on the idea of directly channelling the power of the Holy Spirit.

The penetration is visible across the continent — in the airplane hangars-cum-churches outside Lagos jammed all night with boisterous worshippers, in Ms. Leroba's 18-hour-a-day services in Johannesburg and in the steady spread of churches such as the Church of Latter-day Saints and Seventh Day Adventists into even the most remote areas of the continent — war-torn southern Sudan, for instance.

"Evangelicalism is appealing mainly to younger, schooled Africans who can speak English," said Jesse Mugambi, professor of religious studies at the University of Nairobi. He said the "showbiz" approach appeals to young people lured by a perceived North American quality in the liturgy. Independent churches, which sprang up around the struggles for independence in the 1960s and 1970s, also draw growing numbers.

"The independent churches appeal mainly to the rest of Africans with little schooling and low incomes, particularly in the rural areas and urban, informal settlements," Prof. Mugambi said.

The evangelical religions heavily emphasize tithing, a practice that some commentators believe resembles the sacrifices of food or livestock that are a key feature of many indigenous African animist religions.

Tithing is also controversial because often it is the very poor who give their desperately needed income to unaudited, privately run churches. But Ms. Leroba, who pays her tithe gladly although she earns just $60 a week, said she is confident the money is used well.

"My contribution is going for our new cathedral. They don't keep it for themselves," she said, pointing out that the building will hold 8,000 worshippers.

But Prof. Hofmeyr said the Catholic Church has responded, with some success, to the loss of its faithful by allowing a "liturgical renewal" in music and dance, increasing the use of indigenous languages, promoting a lay apostolate and putting emphasis on social action.

Yet while the African Catholic Church has been largely insulated from North America's sexual-abuse scandals and the debates over abortion, homosexuality and the ordination of women — none of these ideas has much support here — it has had its share of controversy.

For instance, the church has been widely condemned for its role in the genocide against Tutsis and moderate Hutus in Rwanda, where clergy failed to stop the violence and in many cases assisted in it.

Meanwhile, with 32 million sub-Saharan Africans infected with HIV, the Vatican's hard-line position against condom use puts the church in opposition to virtually all other players.

Priests and nuns have urged the use of condoms in some of the worst-hit communities, and the church is taking a lead in providing treatment in some countries, such as Zambia. But the Southern African Catholic Bishops' Conference specifically warned that "condoms may contribute to the spread of AIDS."

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