Basilica Rises In Ivory Coast -- Cathedral Awaits Pope's Blessing

YAMOUSSOUKRO, Ivory Coast - Pope John Paul II will visit this town in central Ivory Coast in September to consecrate a great cathedral, the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace.

The basilica, not yet complete, already is a tourist attraction in this impoverished West African country.

Like a gigantic white parachute, the brilliant dome of the basilica looms over a clearing in the forest, the peak of a colossal structure of marble, stained glass and bronze that dominates this city of 50,000 inhabitants.

Three years ago, President Felix Houphouet-Boigny had a dream: Why not build a majestic cathedral for Roman Catholic worship in the place of his birth that would be the envy not only of Africa but also all the world? The fanciful inspiration reportedly cost $180 million of what the 85-year-old ruler calls his personal fortune.

In many ways his dream has come true.

The basilica is the biggest church ever built, 525 feet tall, with acres of hardwood pews, a marble plaza big enough to accommodate 300,000 worshipers, a dome that is higher and wider than St. Peter's in Rome.

The basilica boasts a separate 40-room mansion with a swimming pool. The facilities are intended for the pope's use only.

Houphouet-Boigny, who wants to have his body lie in state beneath the basilica's grand cupola when he dies, offered to make a gift of his church to the Vatican upon its completion.

Last month, after nearly a year of hesitation over whether to accept and sanction this extraordinary edifice, John Paul agreed to take it and preside over the official opening in the fall.

Certainly, the basilica represents an exceptional expression of religious faith by a Roman Catholic leader. Ivory Coast is a French-speaking nation whose population is about 10 percent Catholic. Houphouet-Boigny hopes the cathedral will serve as a place of pilgrimage for Africa's 75 million Catholics.

But at a time of unprecedented crisis in Ivory Coast, when public servants regularly strike and protesters demand greater political openness and economic redistribution, this symbol of faith is considered by many to be a monumental folly.

Two months ago, street protests broke out in Abidjan, Ivory Coast's biggest city - acts of civil defiance against Houphouet-Boigny's rule that had previously been unheard of in his 30 years in power. Demonstrators calling for more political parties demanded the president's resignation and derided the basilica as a paramount example of his failed leadership.

Indeed, to many disenchanted Ivorians, the basilica appears to represent another chapter in a long saga of extravagances by African leaders - including such hallmarks of garish excess as the Gbadolite palace of President Mobuto Sese Seko of Zaire, modeled on the French palace of Versailles.

The Vatican, pressed to defend its acceptance of Houphouet-Boigny's gift in the face of criticism that it comes at the expense of West Africa's poor, justifies the cathedral by pointing to the example of King Hassan II of Morocco, who recently funded the construction of a mosque costing nearly $300 million.

Church officials also have pointed out that many of the finest and oldest cathedrals in Europe were erected during eras of terrible austerity and want.

To deflect criticism further, the pope has mandated that portions of the basilica grounds be used for aiding the poor in health and educational projects.

Still, the ridicule and protests continue. The completion of the basilica comes when the fortunes of the Houphouet-Boigny government and the nation's economy have never been lower. Only a decade ago, Ivory Coast was considered by many the showcase of West Africa and a model of Third World economic development, riding a wave of plenty provided by the nation's profitable cocoa and coffee industries.

But with the crash in the world cocoa and coffee markets during the past decade, real incomes have been halved, and the government has been involved in a monthly struggle to avoid bankruptcy.

``Every month, I keep waiting for a big bang,'' says a Western analyst based in Abidjan. ``But every month, the government seems to shake a money tree and come up with barely enough to pay its workers.''