YAMOUSSOUKRO, IVORY COAST — IN this small town in the West African bush, an army of workers is doing in three years what once took European artisans more than a century. Since September 1986, some 1,200 laborers have been working day and night, building a Roman Catholic basilica that will be the world's largest church when completed in September. Our Lady of Peace of Yamoussoukro will be higher and longer than St. Peter's in Rome.
This gargantuan project is not the first to be built in Yamoussoukro, once the native village of President F'elix Houphouet-Boigny, and today the nation's capital. Yamoussoukro also has eight-lane boulevards, a presidential palace, a 300-room luxury hotel, a convention center, the Houphouet-Boigny Foundation - as large as the US Capitol building, and three training institutes.
Ironically, this flurry of building has gone on as the Ivory Coast has continued to slip deeper into dire economic straits.
As the world's largest cocoa producer, the Ivory Coast was considered one of Africa's few economic success stories. But in recent years, world cocoa prices slumped. The country last year stopped repaying its $10-billion foreign debt. Per capita income has dropped 50 percent since the early 1980's, to $650 a year.
In a country with a tightly-controlled government press, it is difficult to gauge opposition to the basilica. But when a French magazine published photos of the basilica last fall, merchants in one of the public markets reacted by shaking their heads in disbelief.
``They shouldn't be spending money on things like this when people can't afford to send their children to school and people are dying because they can't buy medicine,'' said one merchant.
The showpiece of the complex is its huge domed nave - whose base is as wide as the length of an American football field. Its most striking features are the ground floor walls and doors - made entirely of 13th-century-style stained glass. Two acres of stained glass were created for the basilica - the equivalent of two years' output of all the stained- glass companies of Europe - say those involved in the project.
AMONG other things, the basilica will boast:
272 concrete columns.
Seven acres of imported Italian and Spanish marble.
About 88 acres of French-style formal gardens around the structure, containing 13 miles of underground watering pipes.
Extra-thick insulation and a specially designed air-conditioning system to protect against the the blistering West African sun.
Special sound-proofing measures such as carpeting, padded seat backs, and tiny sound-absorbing holes drilled in the ceiling, to reduce echoing.
The structure will hold 300,000 worshipers both inside and out.
The President bridles at criticism of the basilica - which he says he is paying for with personal funds. The cost is a closely-guarded secret, but estimates range upward of $130 million.
Mr. Houphouet-Boigny intends to have Pope John Paul II officially inaugurate the basilica, which he will then present to The Vatican. Vatican spokesmen, however, have not yet said whether the Pope will comply, or whether the church will accept the basilica, which will cost $1.7 million a year to maintain.
``I cannot imagine the Pope not accepting it,'' says Pierre Cabrelli, the French site manager and construction chief.
Mr. Cabrelli sees the basilica as a powerful symbol that the southward spread of Islam into sub-Saharan Africa from North Africa stops at Yamoussoukro. Situated some 160 miles north of the economic capital of Abidjan, Yamoussoukro sits on the dividing line between the predominately Muslim north and Christian south of this former French colony. Overall, the Ivory Coast is 30 percent Muslim, 15 percent Christian (mostly Catholic) - and more than 50 percent animist.
``I see the basilica as a spiritual symbol, but also as security for the Catholic Church against Muslim imperialism in Africa,'' Cabrelli said.
As he spoke, outside his office, some of the dozens of Muslim construction workers helping build the world's largest Christian church were stopping for their noon prayers to Mecca.