Falkland Islanders greet election of Argentine as Pope Francis with surprise


Stanley, Falkland Islands

As parishioners readied themselves to file into St Mary's Catholic Church in Stanley this morning for a special service of thanksgiving, no-one was more surprised to find themselves waking up under a Argentinian pope than the Falkland Islands' senior priest.

Monsignor Michael McPartland, whose "parish" including British territories from Ascension to the South Atlantic must be one of the largest in the world, confessed that he had never heard of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio until he was unveiled at Pope Francis in Rome yesterday.

The election of an Argentine leader of the world's Catholics, whose flock includes some 50 Falkland Islanders, was nonetheless seized upon as a positive development in the fraught relationship between the islands and their covetous neighbours to the west.

Father McPartland, 73, whose responsibilities as Apostolic Prefect in the Falklands mean he also oversees Catholics in the British possessions of St Helena and Tristan Da Cunha, said: "I have to say I know nothing of him - I had never heard of him until 24 hours ago. But it is going to create some very interesting reactions.

"He must be seen as Pope first and where he comes from should not figure in the equation. But I would also like to think he would have a beneficial impact and perhaps be able to express some soothing words that would help the situation here."

Unfortunately, the soothing words of the new Pope in the past on the issue of the Falklands and Argentina's claim are unlikely to please many on the islands, who on Monday recorded a 99.8 per cent in favour of retaining their British sovereignty in a referendum.

In a mass in Buenos Aires last year to mark the 30th anniversary of the 1982 invasion by Argentine forces, the then still cardinal told veterans: "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."

Three years earlier, Cardinal Borgoglio told the families of Argentine soldiers killed in the conflict before they travelled to the military cemetery on the islands: "Go and kiss this land which is ours, and seem to us far away."

Senior figures in the Falklands said the remarks were unhelpful but added that the new pope would be welcome to visit the islands to understand the views of its inhabitants.

Dick Sawle, one of the Falklands' elected legislators, told The Independent: "In the political sense, the new pope is wrong in what he said. Argentina cannot reclaim something that it never had.

"I would hope that as leader of the Catholic church he would recognise that Christ died so that all men could be equal and accept our rights as individuals here in the Falklands Islands.

"I'm not sure how far the Church should get involved in politics. He would be very welcome to see for himself what it is like in the Falklands and learn the views of its people."

For Stanley's small Catholic community, where about 30 attend mass on a Sunday, the recent history of the islands is felt just as keenly in St Mary's as it is in the Anglican cathedral a few hundred yards along the sea front.

A brass plaque in the St Mary's, a diminutive timber-built church completed in 1899 and lined with oil paintings of Falklands landscapes,  commemorates 18 British Catholic servicemen, including three members of the SAS, who died in the campaign to liberate the Falklands in 1982.

As news spread of the appointment of Pope Francis, there was polite approval among Catholics of the decision to appoint a prelate from outside Europe but ill ease at its potential use by the Argentine authorities, in particular President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.

One woman, who asked not be named, said: "I think he will do what he has to do which is to be the Pope of all Catholics, whether they're in Stanley or Buenos Aires. It is about time that the Catholic Church realised it's not just based in Europe. But I don't want to hear Cristina spouting on about how the Pope supports her in getting back the Malvinas."

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