Pope John Paul II began his visit to Nigeria Saturday with the Vatican pressing the nation's military regime to release dozens of prisoners - including prominent opposition figures and journalists.

In what had been billed as a strictly pastoral visit to beatify a priest, the pope also urged all Nigerians to respect human rights and expressed hope the country's leader will follow through with promised elections.Many hoped the pontiff would be able to persuade Nigerian leader Gen. Sani Abacha to show some leniency, as happened in Cuba where Fidel Castro released 299 political prisoners after the pontiff's January visit.

The West African nation's harsh climate was likely to be a strain on the frail 77-year-old pontiff. He was stooped when he walked slowly from the plane in 95-degree heat and spoke under a canopy that sheltered him from sand blown by strong desert winds.

"You are all called to muster your wisdom and expertise in the difficult and urgent task in building a society that respects all its members and their dignity," the pope said.

Abacha, who seized control of Nigeria in 1993 and jailed the apparent winner of presidential elections, stood nearby as the pope spoke.

"We back your global campaign against injustice, dictatorship and global capitalism," Abacha said at the airport ceremony.

The pope's second trip to Nigeria brings him to a country different from the land flush with oil revenue that he visited in 1982. Nigeria is mired in crime and tension and faces international scorn over its dismal human rights record.

Abacha's regime was denounced worldwide in 1995 after the execution of dissident author Ken Saro-Wiwa. In the weeks leading up to the pontiff's visit, scores of government opponents and pro-democracy activists were thrown in jail or harassed, the Human Rights Watch group said.

The Vatican's request to release 60 prisoners was made by Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano and did not say what names were on the list.

Papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said the prisoners include "all the names best known to the public."