African Nuns Want More Say in Running Catholic Church

African nuns told a Vatican meeting Friday they want more of a say in running the Catholic Church on the continent, saying they have special talents and shouldn't be left to clean churches and mend vestments.

Women also have an important role to play in forging reconciliation in Africa's many tribal and ethnic conflicts — the main focus of the 3-week-long Vatican meeting on Africa, said Sister Pauline Odia Bukasa of Congo.

"We, your mothers and religious sisters, ask you — our fathers and bishops in this church-family — to promote the dignity of women," she said, requesting in particular greater emphasis on educating young girls.

Sister Felicia Harry of Ghana was more blunt, saying African nuns didn't want to usurp priests' powers but wanted to be part of the church's decision-making process.

"As well as teach catechism to children, decorate parish churches, clean, mend and sew vestments, we religious women in Africa would like to be part of various parish councils," she said, according to a summary of her remarks to the closed meeting.

The role of women in the church has been a recurring topic of discussion among the 300 prelates at the meeting, which is hearing testimony from bishops around the continent about their particular problems and advice from colleagues and Vatican officials on how to deal with them.

Ghana Bishop Matthew Kwasi Gyamfi said the Vatican needed to address a particular issue that many African priests face concerning polygamous marriages: A woman who married a man who then took other wives isn't allowed to receive certain sacraments because she is in a marriage that the church cannot bless.

He said when the women have walked away from such marriages without the consent of their husbands, "the church has been cited for injustice, insecurity, breaking up families, fomenting disunity and destroying social cohesion," he told the synod in asking for some special exemptions from Rome so such women can participate fully in the sacramental life of the church.

In addition to the role of women, the synod has addressed issues that are increasingly of concern to the broader church: how to deal with the rapid spread of Islam and Pentecostal churches, which are increasingly drawing away many Catholics.

Bishop Alfred Adewale Martins of Nigeria said it seemed the aggressive proselytizing of many neo-Pentecostal communities "aims at bringing down the Catholic Church both in her influence as well as in the number of her faithful."

"This intention is captured in the way some of them refer to the Catholic Church as the dead church," he said, urging the Vatican to reach out in particular to young professional Africans who are increasingly targeted by the new churches.

While such problems are universal, a purely African problem has also been raised: tribal and ethnic conflicts within the African church hierarchy.

Bishop Albert Vanbuel of the Central African Republic said recent months have seen increasingly bitter divisions between priests, bishops and laymen fueled by tribal and ethnic divisions.

"Our church is called on to show a witness ... of reconciliation, justice and peace, and above all of communion," he said.