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Catholic conservatism tightly grips developing world

Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson, of Ghana, celebrates a mass at St. Liborius' parish church in Rome on March 10, 2013. Cardinal Turkson is considered to have a credible shot at being named the next pope.

Riccardo De Luca/AP

With his Indonesian heritage and his Congolese language skills, Father Johannes Silalahi could be the face of the Catholic Church's future.

Power in the church is shifting to the developing world, home to the majority of the world's Roman Catholics. The new pontiff, Pope Francis, is the first Latin American pope, and his ascent is a sign that Europe's traditional grip on the church is beginning to weaken.

"Europe evangelized all over the world, but then it got tired," says Father Silalahi, priest to a congregation of Africans from 14 countries in a migrant neighbourhood of Johannesburg.

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"Now it is our turn to carry the task – us from Asia, Africa and Latin America. Some of us are even sent to Europe to be priests."

Some pundits suggested that the Vatican might choose an African pope this week, although Father Silalahi did not think the Catholic hierarchy was ready for a black pope just yet. But even the speculation about a possible African pope was evidence of how power is flowing towards the church in the global south, including Africa, where the number of Catholics is growing faster than anywhere in the world.

Yet if anyone thinks this shift will lead to significant reforms or a liberalization of the church, think again. Interviews with African believers at Father Silalahi's church make it clear that Catholics in the developing world can be as conservative as anyone in Europe – or more so.

Incense wafts through St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in the Yeoville neighbourhood, two blocks from a busy African market and a crowded street where Congolese and Cameroonian migrants hawk food and hair-braiding services on the sidewalk. For Sunday morning mass, the church is packed with up to 600 worshippers from across Africa. Extra chairs are brought in, benches are plunked down beside the altar, and still some parishioners are squeezed outside the doors, while Father Silalahi raises his voice to nearly a shout so that those standing outside can hear. For most Catholics here, any talk of reform is a foreign concept, a sign of excessive liberalism. "I don't think the church needs to change," says Serge Mpiana, a 31-year-old Congolese doctor and St. Francis parishioner who has lived in Johannesburg for four years.

"In Africa, the Catholic Church is still strong," he says. "I think the rules are fine, the rules are perfect. The church shouldn't try to accommodate homosexuality and abortion. People overseas are trying to accommodate all of these things, but what's right is right and what's wrong is wrong."

Another parishioner, Zimbabwean student Thandeka Sweety, said the church must not relax its principles. "Gay marriage?" she said. "Oh my God. It's not what God allows. It's illegal. In Zimbabwe, there are no gay people, or hardly any."

Cardinal Wilfrid Napier, a leader of the Catholic Church in South Africa, wrote in a Catholic newspaper this month that it would be "totally unreasonable" to expect an African pope to bring the church "up to date" on issues such as same-sex marriage or the "absolute equality of men and women." Instead, an African pope would bring "a strong sense of family" into the church, he said.

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Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, ranked by some bookmakers this week as a leading candidate to become pope, revealed his cultural ideology in a recent television interview when he said that the Catholic sexual abuse scandals would never spread to Africa because homosexuality is a "taboo" in African culture. He also provoked criticism at a church gathering by playing an alarmist video claiming that France and Germany would become Muslim countries because of a high Muslim birth rate.

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