In Africa, church carves its own distinctive path

Poortjie, South Africa - Every night in the Mokhali house, the Payi house, and hundreds of other homes in the sprawling shantytowns south of Johannesburg, people give thanks in their prayers for the Roman Catholic Church.

Some may belong to other churches, but no matter: The Catholics have given them new life in the fight against AIDS, distributing free antiretroviral drugs, visiting their homes to take care of the sick and giving food to orphans.

"If it wasn't for the church, we wouldn't have treatment," said Matumelo Mokhali, 34, who along with her 11-year-old daughter, Relebohile, started receiving the AIDS medication three months ago. "I thank God that I am living."

As the Catholic Church prepares to enter a new era with a new pope, its African churches are carving out paths distinctly different from those of their sister churches on other continents, largely in response to the pressing issues of the poor among them. Across Africa, some of their biggest issues are related to AIDS, poverty, political tyranny, and how a parish retains its African flavor, while staying relevant for its parishioners.

But Vatican rules and African realities often clash, and the fallout can be harsh and divisive, and at times can prompt some in the church to make private decisions that go against Rome's dictates.

This is particularly true with AIDS work. The Vatican opposes the use of condoms under any circumstance as part of its opposition to contraception, which hinders the transmission of life. But some priests and nuns privately distribute them anyway. There are other examples of colliding cultures: People remember one incident in which a priest slaughtered a goat during Mass - a traditional cleansing ritual in Africa that some Catholics support, but that left the church authorities aghast. It was an extreme example, several church officials said, of incidents in which local customs have crept into liturgy.

Church officials from Senegal to Lesotho, speaking on the condition of anonymity, have said in interviews over the past two years that they distributed condoms in certain cases, including when one spouse is HIV positive and the other doesn't have the virus, or when people routinely have sex outside committed relationships.

This battle over the church's say in society, and its relevance in people's lives, is occurring at a time when Africa's churches of all denominations are growing faster than any congregations since the earliest times of Christianity.

An estimated 390 million Christians worship in Africa today, about three times the total 35 years ago and roughly half the continent's population.

Catholics account for about 120 million of the Christians; the Catholic Church's growth is nowhere near as strong as that of evangelical groups, but the power of its numbers was acknowledged by Pope John Paul II a decade ago when he said, "It seems the hour of Africa has come" within the church.

Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria was raised an animist - a believer in the spirits of the natural world - in the Ibo tribe, but converted to Christianity. After a long Vatican career, during which he has overseen relations with other religions, Arinze, 72, now is a frequently mentioned candidate to succeed the late pope.

Despite this vibrancy of Christianity in Africa, the Catholic Church is beset with several seemingly intractable problems. One involves tensions with Muslims, especially in north-south divides in Nigeria and Sudan.

Another is that Catholic leaders often get little support when they speak out on social justice issues. In Liberia, Archbishop Michael Francis helped lead a successful campaign that eventually removed President Charles Taylor; last month, Pius Ncube, archbishop of Bulawayo in Zimbabwe, called for a peaceful uprising against President Robert Mugabe before the March 31 elections, but his was a lonely voice.

The church's AIDS treatment initiative, though, has been relatively free of controversy, and much appreciated.

In South Africa, Catholic groups now treat about 2,300 people with antiretroviral drugs, more than some African countries are doing. In Orange Farm, a collection of shantytowns with an estimated 1.5 million people, fewer than 100 people are on AIDS treatment programs - all in a Catholic-run program.