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China out of tune as Asians sing new pope's praises

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Catholics across Asia celebrated Thursday the election of the first non-European pontiff in 1,300 years, but China laid bare its simmering suspicion of the Vatican with a warning to the new Pope Francis.

Any disappointment that Benedict XVI's successor was not Asian appeared to be offset by Argentina's Jorge Mario Bergoglio ending the dominance of Europe, and by his credentials as a humble man with a deep commitment to social reforms.

However, there was admonishment from victims of sexual abuse by Catholic priests in Australia, and Beijing demanded concessions from Francis in its long-running tussle with the Vatican for supremacy over China's Catholics.

"We hope that under the leadership of the new pope the Vatican will adopt a practical and flexible attitude and create conditions for the improvement of China-Vatican relations," foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said.

China's Communist Party and the Vatican both oversee more than a billion people and both assert tight organisational control. They have long clashed over the authority to name bishops and the Vatican's ties with Taiwan, which Beijing regards as a renegade province of China.

Hua demanded that the Vatican "sever its so-called diplomatic relations with Taiwan" and "not interfere in China's internal affairs, including under the pretext of religion".

In the Philippines, Asia's biggest Catholic country which had its own long-shot candidate present in the conclave of cardinals, there was unalloyed praise from President Benigno Aquino 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 the 55-year-old Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle from Manila to be elected in the 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.

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 years.

"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.

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 cover-ups and prevent further crimes.

Nicky Davis, from the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests, called on Francis to back up good intentions with action.

"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 the royal commission to investigate the issue.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130314/china-out-tune-asians-sing-new-popes-praises