New pope? Unbelievers shrug, carp, titter

LONDON Thu Mar 14, 2013 11:48pm IST

Newly elected Pope Francis I, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, makes a private visit to the 5th-century Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, in a photo released by Osservatore Romano in Rome March 14, 2013. REUTERS/Osservatore Romano

Newly elected Pope Francis I, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, makes a private visit to the 5th-century Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, in a photo released by Osservatore Romano in Rome March 14, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Osservatore Romano

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LONDON (Reuters) - When a new man takes over the leadership of more than a billion people, it's hardly surprising it was big news on Thursday. But, hold the front page - this isn't Pope Francis.

As in some other places where the Roman Catholic Church carries little weight, 1.3 billion Chinese paid scant attention to the Vatican; media in China focused rather on Communist party chief Xi Jinping's confirmation as head of state in Beijing.

Such blanket indifference was not the global norm, however.

Few of the six billion people not claimed by the Church among its 1.2 billion followers could entirely avoid noticing Wednesday's elevation of Jorge Bergoglio to the papacy; TV, radio and the web carried word from Rome to Muslims and Hindus, Jews, Buddhists, Protestants and atheists. Reactions ran from warmth through mild curiosity to derision and frank hostility.

"This constant advertising for this sect and its cult leader is getting to me," commented German Hans Reinsch on the website of Bild newspaper, which led its front page with the pope. "I'm going straight round to the atheists' HQ to file a complaint!"

Leaders of other religions - muftis, rabbis, Russian and Greek Orthodox priests and others - share a dismay at the rise of secular faithlessness, especially in the wealthy world, and offered cordial greetings to the first pope from a developing country, playing down long histories of sectarian bloodshed.

But Francis had a frostier reception from those liberals in the Western world who view his Church as an obstacle to social reform and continue to highlight its record of covering up child abuse by priests, a refusal to abandon its condemnation of homosexuality and a bar on women entering the clergy.

"Always the same loser for the past 2,000 years," ran the caption on a cartoon in French satirical weekly Charlie-Hebdo alongside a buxom woman in a bishop's mitre.

"Habemus pontifex!" tweeted Ben Summerskill, chief executive of British gay rights charity Stonewall. "Let's hope he's a bit kinder to gay people than his predecessor."

SECULAR SCEPTICS

A 76-year-old Jesuit who campaigned fiercely against gay marriage in his native Argentina, calling it a devilish attack on "God's plan", Francis seems unlikely to bring great change.

Writing in left-wing French daily Liberation, commentator Francois Sergent asked doubtfully: "Will this old man be capable of moving his Church and its faithful toward a greater embrace of women, of different sexualities - or will he, like his predecessors, remain a rigid guardian of dogma?"

Andrew Copson, chief executive of the British Humanist Association which campaigns to keep religion out of state policy, voiced concern at the global power of the Vatican: "One of the main functions of the new Pope will be to amplify the voice and influence of the Vatican on the world stage," he said.

"If the records of his predecessors on basic rights are any indication of the future of the role, his appointment will be of little comfort to millions across the globe."

In the United States, Herndon Graddick, president of gay and lesbian group GLAAD, urged reform: "In his life, Jesus condemned gays zero times. In Pope Benedict's short time in the papacy, he made a priority of condemning gay people routinely - this in spite of the fact that the Catholic hierarchy had been in collusion to cover up the widespread abuse of children."

But conservative voices, including from outside the Church, scoffed at the chances of a radical change in Vatican thinking:

"Secular liberals who were hoping the new pope would bend the Church's teachings to their political agenda - such as acceptance of same-sex marriage - will no doubt be disappointed to discover that Francis is, in fact, a Catholic," wrote Richard Viguerie on the U.S. website ConservativeHQ.com.

SOCIAL MEDIA GLEE

Inevitably, the billowing of white smoke from the Sistine Chapel and the appearance of the new pontiff in papal white robes on the balcony at St. Peter's provided a new seam of humor, as well as piety and abuse, across social media.

Russians tweeted an "are they related?" photo montage playing on Francis's passing likeness to Soviet leader Yuri Andropov.

Another irreverent vein widely tapped by soccer fans was to link the elevation of the Buenos Aires cardinal to the "Hand of God" credited by his compatriot Diego Maradona for an illegal goal against England that helped Argentina to the 1986 World Cup.

Britain's top-selling Sun tabloid used that line, filling its front page with Francis, his arm raised in benediction. It also criticized his past support for Argentina's challenge to British control of the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic.

On Twitter, some took aim at the media frenzy for the story, especially among those with little or no connection to the Roman Catholic Church: "Omg new pope new pope!!" tweeted Ohio State University student Laura Guthrie. "Oh wait I'm presbyterian..."

From Northern Ireland, where the Pope is a target of abuse by hardline Protestants, a contributor called Stephen spotted "Pope Francis" already featuring in a bit of expletive-charged graffiti on a local bus: "At least," he tweeted, "South Belfast's school kids keep up to date with current affairs."

The wider, unbelieving world, remained more polite. While China's media largely ignored him, the foreign ministry in Beijing, which severed diplomatic relations with the Vatican after the Communist takeover of 1949, offered warmer ties:

While calling on the Pope to stop recognizing Taiwan as an independent country and rejecting his "interfering in China's internal affairs", a spokeswoman for the world's most populous nation congratulated the new ruler of its smallest state and said: "We are sincere in wanting to improve relations."

(Additional reporting by Chen Aizhu in Beijing, Ellen Wulfhorst in New York, Mary Wisniewski in Chicago, Jeremy Laurence in Kabul and Mirna Sleiman in Dubai; Editing by Giles Elgood)

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