| LONDON, March 14
LONDON, March 14 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."
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
humour, 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
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
Britain's top-selling Sun tabloid used that line, filling
its front page with Francis, his arm raised in benediction. It
also criticised 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 recognising 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)