Pope John Paul II today consecrated Africa's largest and most costly basilica as a Nigerian cardinal dismissed criticisms that the church smacked of extravagance on an impoverished continent.
The Pope blessed the $200-million Our Lady of Peace Basilica on the last day of his 10-day tour of Africa, during which he called on the world not to forget Africa's development needs.
The basilica, taller than St. Peter's in Rome, towers over the coconut plantations and tin shacks of the country's political capital, Yamoussoukro. It was donated to the Vatican by Ivorian leader Felix Houphouet-Boigny, 85, Africa's longest-serving president.
The Pope made no mention of the controversy. He thanked Houphouet-Boigny, who was in the basilica.
Unofficial estimates say the president spent about $150 million of his own money to build it.
The basilica is extravagant by African standards. It has marble floors, hand-blown stained-glass windows, air conditioning and huge marble columns, some of them with elevators inside.
Critics have accused the Roman Catholic president of building a "basilica in the bush" and an opulent backdrop for his funeral.
But Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze rejected the charges as he addressed the Pope during the basilica's inaugural Mass. "Africans know that man does not live by bread alone," Arinze said.
"An African may not have a good house, but he rejoices to see a beautiful house of God. . . . We Africans have our poor, our sick, our hungry, our homeless and our refugees," Arinze said.
"But these suffering Africans appreciate the value of giving God our best. They realize that nothing is too expensive to offer to God," he said.
Vatican sources said earlier this year the Pope accepted the gift only after the president agreed to the Pope's suggestion that a hospital and social services center be built on the complex.
For the papal Mass, the indoor part of the basilica was packed with about 10,000 people while 80,000 others sat in an outdoor section flanked by large columns in an oval shape resembling St. Peter's Square.