UK

New Pope Francis Is 'Defender Of Argentina's Rights To Falkland Islands'

14/03/2013 08:59 GMT | Updated 18/03/2013 16:38 GMT

The first Argentinian-born Pope is a stauch defender of his country's rights to the Falkland Islands, once telling followers at a Mass for veterans of the conflict to "go and kiss this land which is ours."

Jorge Mario Bergoglio — now Francis I — succeeded Benedict XVI on Wednesday night, but the spotlight is already on his background in the country, his role in the violent military coup of 1976, and his clashes with current Argentine President Cristina Fernandez.

But it is his entrenched views on the hotly-disputed Falkland Islands that will raise eyebrows in Britain, and among the 230 Catholics in the Falkland Islands, who make up approximately 10% of the total population.

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A Catholic nun sings as people gather outside the Metropolitan Cathedral in Buenos Aires, Argentina

In a service for relatives of fallen soldiers, before visiting the Argentine cemetary in the Falklands in 2009, he told followers, according to the Telegraph: "Go and kiss this land which is ours, and seems to us far away."

"There are angels who will accompany you, who are sons, husbands and fathers of yours, who fell there, in an almost religious movement, of kissing with their blood the native soil."

At a 30th anniversary Mass last year for veterans of the 1982 conflict, he is reported to have said: "We come to pray for those who have fallen, sons of the country who went out to defend their mother country, to reclaim that which is theirs and was usurped from them.

"The Homeland cannot exclude from its memory, anyone who was called; it has to take charge of so many hearts with scars, and say thank you to them, to those who stayed on the island or those submerged in the water, to all of them."

The head of the Catholic Church in the Falklandss, Michael McMarcam, told the Buenos Aires Herald that he was delighted by the news. “I am delighted first of all of having a new pope so quickly, and quite excited about the prospect of an Argentine cardinal becoming the new pope. I think it’s going create some very interesting reaction.

"But I’m sure the more we get to know who he is, and know a little bit more about him, we will get the same kind of rapport as we received from Pope Benedict. He will be received as the pope, and will be listened as the pope, doesn’t matter where he comes from,” he said.

“He looked very serene and dignified. The Catholic congregation is very small in the island. But, how do the people react to having a Argentine pope? It will take a bit of time, but he will be seen more as the pope rather than an Argentine,” McMarcam said.

“His first visit will be to Argentina, I would like to think perhaps he will be able to say some words to sooth the situation, a situation which is not real, is created by politics, that’s my view, and I don’t think I’m alone,” he added.

Born into a middle-class family of seven children in Buenos Aires on December 17 1936, he studied chemistry before deciding to become a Catholic priest, and was ordained as a priest in December 1969, when he was 32.

The rise of Friar Jorge, as he is known in Argentina, coincided with the brutal 1976 coup, when a military junta was installed.

Francis — the 266th pontiff and the first Jesuit Pope — has also been mired in a decades-old controversy surrounding the navy kidnappings of two Jesuit priests, Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics .

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Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, right, gives the holy communion to Argentina's former army chief Roberto Bendini in Buenos Aires

According to the Los Angeles Times: "They surfaced five months later, drugged and semi-nude, in a field," the Times reported.

A 2005 lawsuit accused Bergoglio of unspecified involvement in the abductions. Reuters explains that "the military government secretly jailed [Yorio and Jalics] for their work in poor neighborhoods."

Bergoglio, who ran the Jesuit order during the dictatorship, testified about the matter in 2010 after twice refusing to appear in open court, but "his answers were evasive, human rights attorney Myriam Bregman said." His spokesman has repeatedly denied any involvement, calling the allegations "old slander" and say he rescued many dissidents from persecution during the junta.

He has had a testy relationship with the country's current President Kirchner, and her predecessor as President and husband, the late Nestor Kirchner.

The main point of friction with Argentina's current ruler has been same-sex marriage, which Fernandez's government legalised in July 2010. Commenting on the matter at the time, Cardinal Bergoglio said: "Let us not be naive - this is not simply a political struggle, it is the aspiration to destroy God's plan."

Kirchner went so far as to describe Bergoglio as the "real representative of the opposition" during his time in power, while the Church was critical with the President's "strident" style.

In a snipe at Bergoglio, Kirchner reportedly said: "Our God is everyone's, but careful because the Devil also reaches everyone - those who wear trousers and those who wear cassocks."

Mrs Kirchner did tweet a congratulatory letter about an hour and a half after the Archbishop of Buenos Aires had been made Pope Francis.

She said: "In my name, that of the Argentine government and representing the people of our country, I want to salute you on the occasion of your election as the Roman Pontiff of the Universal Church.

"It is our desire that, as you undertake the leadership and guidance of the Church, you should have a fruitful pastoral work carrying out such great responsibilities in pursuit of justice, equality, fraternity and the peace of humankind.

"I forward to your Holiness my esteem and respect."

Latino Catholics make up 39% of the global population and nearly 77% of the population of Argentina is Catholic, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. The nation has the world's 11th largest Catholic population.

But in Argentina, where the Roman Catholic Church is the only officially recognised religion, only 20% of Catholics regularly practice the faith.

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