The election of Barack Obama as the first African-American president could lead to the election of the first black Pope, according to a leading black archbishop.

Wilton Daniel Gregory, 60, the Archbishop of Atlanta, said that in the past Pope Benedict XVI had himself suggested that the election of a black pontiff would "send a splendid signal to the world" about the universal church.

Archbishop Gregory, who in 2001 became the first African-American to head the U.S. Bishops Conference, serving three years, said that the election of Obama was "a great step forward for humanity and a sign that in the U.S. the problem of racial discrimination has been overcome." Like Obama, Archbishop Gregory comes from Chicago, and was previously Bishop of Belleville, Illinois.

He said that recent Popes, beginning with John XXIII and Paul VI, had brought prelates "from all nations and races" to Rome to take up senior positions in the Curia, the Vatican hierarchy. This offered "an international vision of a Church rich in diversity," he told the Italian newspaper La Stampa.

Pope Benedict — whose next encyclical is on globalization and social justice — had a "world outlook" as a theologian whose thought had "opened hearts and minds on five continents," Archbishop Gregory said. The former Joseph Ratzinger, who as a young man in his native Germany had witnessed "the horrors of the Second World War," spoke a "universal language."

Archbishop Gregory said that the next time cardinals gathered to elect a Pope they could "in their wisdom" choose an black pontiff. "My own election as head of the U.S. Bishops Conference was an important signal. In 2001, the American bishops elected someone they respected regardless of his race, and the same thing could happen with the election of a Pope."

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