Tuesday March 19, 2013
Argentina asks for Falklands help in pope's first talks
VATICAN CITY: Argentine President Cristina Kirchner on Monday asked compatriot Pope Francis to mediate in the Falkland Islands' dispute with Britain at the new pontiff's first talks with a head of state, as world leaders flew in for his inauguration mass.
"I asked his intervention to promote dialogue between the two sides," Kirchner told reporters after meeting Latin America's first pope in the Vatican, warning against a growing "militarisation" in the South Atlantic.
Kirchner noted that late pope John Paul II had mediated in a similar dispute between Argentina and Chile - when the two countries nearly went to war over the islands of the Beagle channel in 1978.
Argentine media have quoted Francis, former archbishop of Buenos Aires Jorge Bergoglio, as telling reporters in 2011 that the Falklands, known as the Malvinas in Argentina, are "ours".
British Prime Minister David Cameron said earlier that he "respectfully" disagreed with those comments. In a referendum this month, 99.8 percent of the islands' inhabitants voted to stay British.
The sparsely populated archipelago triggered a war between Britain and Argentina in 1982.
"We have a very different historic opportunity now, much more favourable. In both countries, Britain and Argentina, there are democracies," Kirchner said.
The new pope when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires had testy relations with Kirchner in Argentina, particularly over legislation on gay marriage, abortion and transsexual identity.
Kirchner's late husband Nestor had called him "the true head of the opposition" because of his behind-the-scenes meetings with political leaders.
But Kirchner and Francis appeared to have avoided sensitive issues, with the president saying simply: "He's our pope".
The Argentine pope - the first non-European pontiff in nearly 1,300 years - is still haunted by criticism from leftists in Argentina for failing to speak out during the military era's "Dirty War" (1976-1983) when he was head of the country's Jesuits.
The Vatican has firmly denied claims that he failed to protect two Jesuit priests who were tortured by the regime, saying that he had in fact protected lives during the dictatorship.
The controversy has failed to dampen enthusiasm in Rome over a disarmingly informal style that is unusual in the Vatican and some bold statements by Francis in the early days of his papacy.
He has called for a "poor Church for the poor", has warned cardinals against worldly glories and has said the Church could crumble away "like a sand castle" without spiritual renewal.
The leader of the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics will be formally inaugurated Tuesday at a mass in St Peter's Square, with the Vatican expecting hundreds of thousands of people.
Francis will receive the papal pallium - a strip of wool worn over the shoulders - and the traditional "Fisherman's Ring" bearing an image of St Peter, the first pope.
The mass begins at 0830 GMT. It will be preceded by a tour of the square by the pope and will include a homily from the pope.
- 'Reach out to the poor' -
Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said 132 foreign delegations will attend, including 31 presidents, 11 heads of government and six kings and queens.
A controversial visitor is Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, a practising Catholic, who is widely criticised for human rights abuses.
He is sidestepping a travel ban that applies to the European Union but not to the sovereign Vatican City state.
The new pope also faces a diplomatic minefield with the attendance of Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, which sparked an angry response from Beijing.
China has long had strained relations with the Vatican in a dispute about authority over Catholics in the country.
Another visitor, US Vice President Joe Biden, also a practising Catholic, meanwhile met with Italian President Giorgio Napolitano.
Biden quipped: "I didn't realise you'd arrange for a new pope so quickly... They're quicker than American politics!"
"I'm delighted to be here for Pope Francis. He shares a vision that all of us share, to reach out to the poor and the dispossessed," he said.
A poll released in Argentina on Monday showed 54.2 percent of respondents in Buenos Aires were proud of the moderate conservative pope but do not support his teaching against the use of condoms.
About 60 percent of the 1,000 people reached in the telephone survey said they were accepting of homosexuality, which also runs counter to the new pontiff's teachings.
Francis was the surprise choice in a conclave of cardinals in the Sistine Chapel last week to replace Benedict XVI, who resigned last month aged 85 saying he was getting too old for the job.
As expected, Francis is attracting a heavyweight turnout from Latin America, home to two in five of the world's Catholics, although he has urged his compatriots to save their money and make donations to the poor instead of travelling.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, a former leftist guerrilla fighter, and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto have both said they will attend.
Chilean President Sebastian Pinera tweeted from Rome that this was a "very emotional" time. - AFP