ACCRA, Ghana, Jul 16 – Ghana may be one of the most religious countries in the world, despite being constitutionally secular, but a project to build a new national cathedral has not met universal approval.
Plans for the building, designed by the Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye and to be located on some six hectares (14 acres) near Accra’s parliament, were unveiled earlier this year.
Designs showed landscaped gardens and a concave structure housing a chapel, baptistry and 5,000-seat auditorium, as well as Africa’s first bible museum and documentation centre.
The building is intended to be “a house of prayer for all people”, and will host state occasions which are usually held at Independence Square or the president’s official residence.
Chika Okeke-Agulu, a professor of art history at US university Princeton, wrote in The New York Times in April that the cathedral was “a huge deal”.
“It signals that the country is poised to consolidate the gains of decades of democracy,” he added, predicting it would give Ghana a “globally architectural landmark”.
He hoped it would spark similar projects across Africa but reaction has been mixed, with calls for the money to be better spent elsewhere.
“So we need to build a cathedral so we can boast that we have arrived? Rubbish,” wrote one user on Twitter.
“When did it get to the point that people would rather spend money on the way a church looks than spending money on the sick, poor, homeless and the people of the community,” wrote another.
Adjaye is certainly acclaimed: he was knighted in Britain and is best known for designing the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC.
He called it “an immense honour to be granted the opportunity to contribute something of this scale and import to my home country”.
Religion plays a major role in life in Ghana and there are churches, mosques, street preachers and shrines to traditional faiths across the country.
In a 2012 WIN/Gallup poll of 57 countries, an overwhelming 96 percent of Ghanaians said they were religious.
The last national census in 2010, 71.2 percent of Ghana’s population of 23.6 million were recorded as Christian and 17.6 percent as Muslim.
President Nana Akufo-Addo has appointed a 13-member board of religious leaders to raise funds for and manage the new cathedral. The overall cost has not been revealed.
The government has donated land for the project and insists that is all they are contributing.
But that has not convinced some who suspect public money could be used.
“We should render under Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s,” said the general-secretary of the Christian Council of Ghana, Cyril Fayose.
Fayose stressed he was not against the cathedral but said more details were needed.
“The government meddling in church matters sometimes raises eyebrows to wonder why they are doing it… We are not so sure, the motives behind it are not very clear to us,” he added.
James Kwabena Bomfeh junior is hoping to stop it before a stone is laid and has mounted a legal challenge to the state’s involvement, arguing it is unconstitutional.
The government should be religiously neutral but was showing preferential treatment to the Christian faith by supporting the project, he argued.
The presidential liaison for the cathedral, Clara Napaga Tia Sulemana, said Bomfeh’s court case had stalled progress on fundraising and development.
She denied suggestions of favouritism, pointing to a government donation of land for a national mosque.
The government has also funded Muslim activities, including to the annual Hajj pilgrimage.
For cultural critic, Nii Kotei Nikoi, the question was less about government involvement.
“In one neighbourhood you can have five to six churches. The fundamental problem is that Accra is saturated with churches,” he said.
He also said it showed that followers of the major religions were being catered for but those of minor faiths or none were rarely considered.