Braving 100-degree heat, Pope John Paul II issued a powerful call for change Sunday in this country gripped by military rule, telling Nigerians to rid their society of "everything that offends human dignity or violates human rights."
Hundreds of thousands turned out for the papal Mass in the country's Roman Catholic heartland, a rare day of celebration for a hard-pressed people.The pope preached from an altar beneath a thatched hut that faced a red dust bowl and beatified a priest, Cyprian Michael Iwene Tansi.
Since John Paul arrived Saturday for a three-day visit, his message to the military regime that seized power in 1993 coup has been strikingly direct. The pope kept up the pressure in Sunday's Mass.
"All Nigerians must work to rid society of everything that offends the dignity of the human person or violates human rights," he said. "This means reconciling differences, overcoming ethnic rivalries and injecting honesty, efficiency and competence in the art of governing."
Starting before dawn, hundreds of thousands of people - on foot, perched on motorbikes and crammed into buses - converged on the Mass site, an airfield on the outskirts of Onitsha.
The road to the airport was lined with huge portraits of Tansi and the pope and blocked by a miles-long traffic jam. In one battered old Mercedes, a group of nuns stopped to say some prayers and set out on foot for the final leg of the journey.
One after another, people praised the pope and urged him to help free their country from the shackles of a military junta that jails its opponents, kills at will and stifles opposition.
The crowd sang and danced and punched fists in the air in joyous expectation of hearing words of comfort and inspiration.