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New era for Catholics as German conservative becomes Pope

VATICAN CITY, Wednesday (AFP) The Roman Catholic Church entered a new era Wednesday after cardinals picked German conservative Joseph Ratzinger to guide its 1.1 billion followers, drawing praise around the world but also criticism from many quarters. The 78-year-old cardinal, the Vatican's doctrinal enforcer under John Paul II, will take the name Benedict XVI and will be inaugurated Sunday.

Church bells rang across Rome and in many countries around the world as the news emerged, while state leaders - some of whom had attended John Paul II's funeral 11 days earlier - were quick to congratulate him.

As spiritual leader of a 2,000-year-old faith, the new Pope faces a heavy burden to revive a Church riven by turmoil and disaffection and losing numbers in an increasingly secular age.

In the immediate future though, he was to celebrate his first mass as Pope early Wednesday in the Sistine Chapel, in a private ceremony for his cardinal colleagues. It was they who, in the same fresco-adorned chamber, Tuesday elected him as Pope on the second day of their secret conclave, one of the fastest in modern times.

An ecstatic crowd of nearly 200,000 cheered and waved wildly as Ratzinger, the 265th pontiff in the Church's history, smiled and waved to acknowledge the applause from the curtain-draped balcony of Saint Peter's basilica.

His first words were met by a huge ovation. "Dear brothers and sisters, after the great Pope John Paul II the cardinals have elected me a simple and humble labourer in the vineyard of the Lord," he said, referring to his immediate predecessor.

"Let us go forward, the Lord will help us, and Mary, his most holy Mother, is on our side."

The announcement that a new Pope had been elected came from the traditional white smoke billowing out of a chimney atop the Sistine Chapel.

It sent the crowds on St Peter's Square into raptures, but because it also appeared at times grey, there was an agonizing wait of over 10 minutes before pealing bells confirmed the news.

Congratulations poured in from around the world but there was much dissent too, with many activists dismayed by his conservative views on issues ranging from sexual morality to the ordination of women.

Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder of Germany called it "a great honour" for the country and said Benedict XVI was "a worthy successor" to John Paul II.

US President George W. Bush, who clashed with John Paul II over the US-led war on Iraq but shared many of his conservative values on other issues, said Ratzinger was a man of "great wisdom and knowledge."

UN chief Kofi Annan added his support, Israel said it hoped he would forge closer ties between Jews and Catholics and British Prime Minister Tony Blair said he looked forward to working with the new pope on issues including Africa and international development.

But China called on the new pontiff to break ties with Taiwan and stay out of the communist country's internal affairs to create the conditions for better Sino-Vatican relations.

Even in Communist Cuba, bells tolled across the country.

In Asia, however, Ratzinger's election is likely to be a good fit for the continent's largely conservative Catholic populations, analysts said. The iron-clad birth control policies promoted by John Paul II were embraced wholeheartedly by the Church in the Philippines, which has one of the highest birth rates in Asia and tens of millions living in poverty.

In Africa too, despite criticism of the Vatican's strong opposition to the use of condoms, the Church held staunchly conservative views.

"We have things to conserve.

We have to protect the Catholic heritage from harm ... by promoting the value of life," said Father Felix Ajakaye, spokesman for the Catholic Church in Nigeria.


 

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