The Basilica in the Bush

  • Seen from miles away, it looks like a giant pearl-gray dirigible hovering over the African bush. Up close, its true shape emerges: a sandy-beige concrete behemoth topped by a gargantuan dome and a copper cross that gleams in the relentless sun. Equally remarkable, the great basilica is built in post-Renaissance style and has two long arms formed by 128 massive Doric columns that reach out from the porch to envelop a 7.4-acre plaza paved with granite and marble. Has St. Peter's Basilica been magically transported from Rome to the heart of Africa? No, this is the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace in Yamoussoukro, the administrative capital of the Ivory Coast.

    The basilica's dome, which reaches 525 ft. above the ground, makes it the tallest church in all Christendom -- about 100 ft. higher than St. Peter's, its inspiration -- but Our Lady of Peace will accommodate 2,000 fewer worshipers than St. Peter's. The Yamoussoukro basilica is the dazzling centerpiece of a building boom launched by President Felix Houphouet-Boigny to carve a modern capital out of the rain forest, 135 miles from the coast and the urban center of Abidjan, the former capital.

    Almost as astonishing as the basilica's size is the speed with which it went up: it took only three years, compared with more than 100 years for St. Peter's. The President, now 83, wanted the project to be completed before he died, so 1,500 well-organized workmen toiled around the clock to meet his expectations. The crew is currently putting on the final touches in preparation for a completion ceremony due to take place in September.

    Houphouet-Boigny, who converted to Roman Catholicism as an orphaned teenager, views his basilica as a pilgrimage center for Africa's 73 million Catholics and a bulwark against Islam and animism in his own country, which counts about 1 million Christians in a population of 10 million. As many as 300,000 pilgrims would easily fit into the plaza.

    Apart from the problematic location, the basilica's distinctly non-African design has raised questions: all the figures depicted in the stained-glass windows are white, except for a lone black pilgrim who bears a remarkable resemblance to Houphouet-Boigny. Especially troublesome is the cost of the construction: the price tag may exceed $200 million.

    Despite the overall similarity, the Yamoussoukro structure is not really an enlarged replica of St. Peter's. Designed by architect Pierre Fakhoury, 45, an Ivory Coaster of Lebanese ancestry, the basilica has no paintings, statues, wooden paneling, tapestries or carvings. Instead, the building, buttressed by 60 interior columns, serves as a gallery for 36 immense, hand-blown stained- glass windows. In a brilliant conception, hundreds of colors splash across the nave in patterns that change throughout the day. "It is the church of light," says a mason at the site, "the light of God." The basilica, which is entered from a huge porch overhung with stained glass, is air-conditioned.

    Like St. Peter's, which the Protestants of 16th century Europe scorned as a scandalous extravagance, Our Lady of Peace is being maligned as an unseemly expense in a country with an annual per capita income of $650. Demands a devout Ivory Coaster: "Why build a church for God while there are so many unemployed and near starving?" The regime counters that the church was paid for entirely by private funds provided by Houphouet-Boigny and his sister and was built on land owned by the President.

    Houphouet-Boigny considers the basilica a gift not only to Africa but also to the Vatican. Though he discussed the project in an audience with Pope John Paul II last April, the Pontiff will not come to dedicate the church in September. (If he ever does visit, John Paul will stay in a huge residence built especially for him, complete with swimming pool, 20 rooms and a 40-room mansion for his entourage.)

    Ivory Coast officials want the Vatican to provide the $1.5 million in estimated annual maintenance costs. Rome, however, was not consulted on the undertaking and thus feels no financial responsibility, though it may help supervise an international fund for the extraordinary edifice. Confides a Vatican official: "The size and expense of the building in such a poor country make it a delicate matter. But it is a project close to the President's heart, and he sees it as an experience of faith. We want to respect that."

    Although bishops and priests in the Ivory Coast are reluctant to say much about the grandiose building, some parishioners fervently defend it. One man insists it is a gift to God "in thanks for all the years of peace that we have enjoyed." Says a young religious instructor: "We give it to the entire Christian world with the little that we have, despite our poverty. This is the way Ivorians think." Under the shadow of the colossal dome, Antoine Bakou, 29, hoes his yam patch and reflects quietly, "It is a good thing for us to have the basilica because we Africans walk in the divine presence."