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US Bishops set to elect first black President

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops is poised to elect its first black president, Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of the Belleville diocese in southern Illinois.

Bishop Gregory is expected to ascend to the group's top post when the bishops meet next month in Washington DC. Since 1966, every conference vice president but one has been elected president.

"For African-American Catholics it will be almost equivalent to having an African-American president of the United States, simply because it will mean recognition of the authenticity of their presence," said Diana Hayes, a black Catholic and theologian at Georgetown University.

Gregory declined to comment, saying it would be inappropriate before the election. He has written extensively on the church's opposition to the death penalty and medically-assisted suicide.

"He's already proven himself to be a real leader in the Catholic church," said the Fr Thomas Reese, editor of America, a Catholic magazine. "He's worked his way up through the bishops' conference by serving as chair of important committees, like the committee on liturgy."

Gregory also is known as a powerful speaker, who urges Catholics to recognise prejudice as a sin. He has named racial profiling and white flight from urban schools as two serious social problems.