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Asian Catholics celebrate election of Pope Francis

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Catholics across the Asia-Pacific celebrated Thursday the election of the first non-European pope in 1,300 years, hailing Argentina's Jorge Mario Bergoglio as a champion of the developing world.

Any disappointment that Benedict XVI's successor was not Asian appeared to be largely offset by the new Pope Francis ending the European dominance, as well as his credentials as a humble man with a deep commitment to social reforms.

However, there was a word of admonishment from a group supporting victims of sexual abuse by Catholic priests in Australia.

Philippine President Benigno Aquino, who leads Asia's biggest Catholic country but who has challenged the Church over its opposition to contraception, offered warm praise for the 76-year-old new pontiff.

"The president, along with the Filipino people, joins all the Catholic faithful as they receive their new leader and meet his proclamation with a sense of boundless promise," said a statement released by Aquino's office.

Aquino said Francis raised hopes of "renewal" in the Catholic Church, citing his status as the first pope from outside Europe since Saint Gregory III, born in present-day Syria who was pope between 731 and 741.

The Philippine leader also pointed to Francis's status as the first Jesuit pope. The Society of Jesus is known for its emphasis on education and critical evaluation of Catholic doctrine.

Many people in the Philippines, which is home to about 80 million Catholics, had been hoping for Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle from Manila to be elected in Wednesday's conclave at the Vatican.

But Father Emmanuel Alfonso, the head of the Jesuit Communications Foundation in Manila, said there was also relief that Filipinos had not "lost" their leader to the global role.

"Setting aside national pride, the Church here needs a pastor, the Church here also needs inspiration... to lose him right away would be a big loss," Alfonso said, pointing out Tagle was still relatively young at 55.

Alfonso said Catholics in Asia had little issue with the fact that the new pope resembled previous pontiffs from the Old World, in that he has Italian heritage and is getting on in age.

"He was born in Argentina, he grew up in Argentina, he studied in Argentina. I think the cardinals considered him Argentinian," Alfonso said, insisting his election marked a "radical" shift for the Church.

There were similar voices of support for Pope Francis in India, which is home to about 17 million Catholics, the Church's second-largest community in Asia after the Philippines.

Father Savio Barretto, rector at the Basilica of Bom Jesus in the holiday state of Goa, said he was "thrilled" to have a non-European pope and the first fellow Jesuit.

"I am proud to have a pope who is in our order. We are expecting a lot from him. We are also happy because he belongs to the Third World," he said.

One in four of Goa's 1.5 million population is Catholic -- a legacy of centuries under Portuguese rule.

Remedios Fernandes, a retired civil servant in Goa, was impressed with reports the new pope cooked his own food and travelled by bus as a cardinal.

"We are optimistic that his simplistic qualities will help the Church to get a closer and realistic look at social issues," he told AFP.

Indonesia's Catholic minority hailed Pope Francis as an ideal leader for members of the faith in developing countries.

"He is a breath of fresh air for the Catholic Church as he doesn't come from the Vatican, he's not from the Curia (Vatican government) and he always speaks up for justice," said Benny Susetyo from the Indonesian Bishops Conference.

Bishops across Australia also offered warm praise, although victims of sex abuse by Catholic priests urged Pope Francis to prove he could end the cover-ups and prevent further crimes.

Nicky Davis, from the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests, called on Pope Francis to hand over secret Vatican files about child sex abuse in Australia, as a gesture to show he was serious about change.

"One of the first actions of the new pope should be to open all the secret Vatican files relating to child sexual abuse in Australia and hand them to Australia's royal commission," she said.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced last year a royal commission to investigate the issue.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130314/asian-catholics-celebrate-election-pope-francis