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Argentina's Jorge Mario Bergoglio elected first pope from the Americas

VATICAN CITY – Archbishop of Buenos Aires Jorge Mario Bergoglio, 76, has been elected to replace Pope Benedict XVI as leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.

Bergoglio became the first pope from the Americas in the history of the Catholic Church, taking the papal name of Francis I, the Vatican announced on Wednesday.

French Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran made the announcement from the balcony of St Peter’s Basilica. Bergoglio was believed to be the runner-up to Benedict XVI at the last conclave in 2005.

Tens of thousands of pilgrims in St Peter’s Square cheered as the bells of St Peter’s Basilica rang out, after 115 cardinals in a Vatican conclave signaled their momentous decision.

The crowd chanted “Habemus papam!” (“We have a pope!”) as they waited, waving flags from around the world.

Cardinals have been locked up behind the Vatican walls and cut off from the outside world since Tuesday, meeting in a sublime Renaissance chapel swept for recording devices and installed with scramblers to prevent any communications from being transmitted.

The white smoke from the chimney indicating a pope had been selected was produced by burning the ballots and setting off smoke flares in two stoves specially installed in a corner of the chapel.

The decision came after five votes – longer than for Benedict’s succession to late Pope John Paul II in 2005, which was decided in four votes.

The historic election after Benedict’s abrupt resignation last month was being followed around the world on live television as well as through social media and smartphone apps, and the event was the first-ever Tweeted conclave.

Benedict’s eight-year papacy was riven by scandals, and the new pope will face immediate challenges, including stamping his authority on the Vatican machinery and trying to bring back a Catholic flock that is deserting churches across the West.

Benedict’s style was often seen as too academic, and he was never as popular as his predecessor. Many of the cardinals had called for a new pope who will be a good communicator and is able to reach out particularly to young people.

Conclaves are usually only held after a pope dies and are sometimes decades apart – the last one was in 2005, the one before that 1978. A popular Italian expression for things that happen very rarely is “at every death of a pope.”

The 85-year-old Benedict broke with tradition, becoming the first pontiff to resign since the Middle Ages. He has said he will retire to a former nunnery inside the Vatican – an unprecedented and delicate situation for the Church.

In one of his last acts as pope, he issued a decree allowing cardinals to bring forward the date of a conclave in cases of papal resignation – a move seen by many as potentially setting a precedent for future ageing pontiffs.

The scandal of hushed-up sexual abuses of children by pedophile priests going back decades has also cast its shadow over the conclave.

The U.S. group SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) called for over a dozen cardinals to be excluded from the conclave either for covering up abuses or making tactless remarks about the scandals.

The Vatican on Wednesday defended the cardinals and accused SNAP and other activists of showing “negative prejudices.”

“None of us are surprised that they have tried to take advantage of these days to repeat their accusations and give them greater resonance,” Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said. “These cardinals should be respected and have every right to be in the conclave.”

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