Cardinal Kurt Koch, a close aide of Pope Benedict who will cast his vote for the next leader of the Roman Catholic Church, says there is no reason why the new pontiff cannot be African or Latin American.
Koch, head of the Vatican department that deals with Christian unity and relations with Jews, also said he had had no doubt that Pope Benedict would resign rather than rule for life, and said that future popes would be free to do the same.
“The challenges of the Church in the world are very different on different continents: in Africa, in Asia, in Latin America. The question is ‘where will the challenges be greater, on which continent, should it be a pope for, above all, Latin America, for Africa … ,” Koch told Reuters in an interview.
“I can imagine taking a step towards a black pope, an African pope or a Latin American pope. I can imagine this.”
Koch, 62, a soft-spoken Swiss, will be one of the 117 cardinals under the age of 80 who are eligible to enter a secretive conclave to elect the next pope that is expected to start in mid-March.
There has been much speculation in the Church on whether the man to succeed Benedict should be a non-European, which would be a first in more than a millennium.
While the Church in Europe is polarised and has dwindling congregations, the Church in Africa is growing and in Latin America it remains large and vibrant despite inroads by Protestant evangelical groups.
There are several leading candidates from outside the Old Continent.
Latin Americans include Brazilian Odilo Scherer, archbishop of the huge diocese of Sao Paulo and Argentine Leonardo Sandri, who works in the Vatican and whose parents are of Italian origin.
Peter Turkson from Ghana, head of the Vatican’s justice and peace department, is often tipped as Africa’s front runner.
There is a thriving Church in the Philippines, the largest Catholic country in Asia, birthplace of one cardinal who is often mentioned as a candidate, Luis Antonio Tagle.