Cardinal-designate John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan
WASHINGTON – Cardinal-designate John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan has been an ardent promoter of dialogue among Christians and other religions and a vocal advocate for peace and cooperation, especially in Nigeria.
As president of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Nigeria from 1999 to 2006, he was known for his criticism of government corruption and of some leaders' attempts to twist the constitution to fit their own ends.
He was once referred to as "a fiery clergy" by a Nigerian daily newspaper because he was not afraid to go against the current – he asked then-President Olusegun Obasanjo not to violate the constitution by running for a third term.
Pope Benedict named the archbishop of Abuja, Nigeria, one of six new cardinals Oct. 24.
During an interview in 2009, Onaiyekan replied to a journalist's question regarding the government granting amnesty to the Niger Delta militants, who were fighting to keep more oil profits in the region.
"In fact, I think the executive thieves and robbers have caused far more damage to our economy than the Niger Delta militants," Onaiyekan said. "If they repent, I think Nigeria will be ready to grant them amnesty.
"And, just like they asked the Niger Delta militants to hand in their guns in exchange for amnesty, all those thieves and rogues should bring back our money and we would forgive them."
His stance on corruption is manifest in his own lifestyle. Despite being surrounded by the opulence common to Abuja, he has a simple home. Each December, he seeks donations for prisoners and spends Christmas with them.
Onaiyekan addressed the question of violence between Muslims and Christians in his homeland in an address to the world Synod of Bishops Oct. 19.
"Despite the impression often given by the world media, I want to stress that Christians in Nigeria do not see themselves as being under any massive persecution by Muslims," he told the synod.
"Our population of about 160 million is made up of Christians and Muslims in equal number and influence. We have not done too badly in living peacefully together in the same nation."
While there are many differences between the two religions, they also have much in common, he said.
"In the new evangelization, we need to know our Muslim neighbours and keep an open mind to those who are friendly, and they are in the majority," he added.
Those close to him describe the cardinal-designate as a humble and down-to-earth pastor who has a sincere concern about people.
Father Patrick Tor Alumuku, director of social communications for the Abuja Archdiocese, described Onaiyekan as "one of the most approachable Church leaders that I know."
He said the cardinal-designate commands such respect that "on every issue, Nigerians want to hear his opinion."