ROME - One of the Vatican's most influential figures told a German newspaper April 12 that Pope John Paul II should be succeeded by someone from Africa.

There has been increasing speculation that the Pope's ill health might force him to step down, according to Ecumenical News International. Open speculation regarding the pope's successor by senior Vatican officials - such as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger - is unusual.

Ratzinger said the election of an African pope would be a positive sign for all Christianity.

"For all its condemnation of racism, the Western world still has reservations about the Third World," Ratzinger told Die Welt.

Italian news agency Adista, which focuses on Catholic affairs, has reported Ratzinger supports Cardinal Francis Arinze from Nigeria as the next pope. Arinze currently leads the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue.

For the first time in his papacy, the Pope failed to take his place at the altar during a Palm Sunday mass in St. Peter's Square. He also missed other Holy Week rituals due to ill health, according to the Vatican.