Hundreds of foreign dignitaries from around the globe are attending the installation of the new Pope Francis at the Vatican -- but British Prime Minister David Cameron will not be among the crowd of prominent well-wishers.
British media are suggesting that Cameron’s absence from the installation of the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics might be a snub to protest statements that the Argentine pope has made about the disputed Falkland Islands.
Moreover, likely further upsetting Cameron, the president of Argentina, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, used her first audience with the new Holy Father to ask him to intervene in the Falklands matter. Argentina, which calls the archipelago off its coast Las Malvinas, has long claimed sovereignty over them.
Britain and Argentine even fought a brief, but deadly, war over the Falklands 30 years ago.
Although Kirchner has tangled before with the pope (when he was Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the archbishop of Buenos Aires) over such topics as abortion and gay marriage, she told reporters after her meeting with him: “I asked for [Francis’] intervention to avoid problems that could emerge from the militarization of Great Britain in the south Atlantic. … We want a dialogue and that's why we asked the Pope to intervene so that the dialogue is successful.”
In his place, Cameron sent two of his cabinet ministers, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi (a Muslim) and Kenneth Clarke, to the installation in Rome.
However, a spokesman for the prime minister issued a statement saying Cameron’s absence from the papal ceremony has “absolutely nothing to do with the Falklands.”
In early March, Falkland Islanders overwhelmingly supported a referendum to remain a part of Britain by retaining its status as a British Overseas Territory. Argentine officials, including Kirchner herself, blasted the referendum as irrelevant and a “publicity stunt” and have often referred to the residents of the islands as “colonists.”
The pope himself (while an Argentine cardinal) earlier seemed to support Buenos Aires’ stance on the islands by calling the British “usurpers.”
Cameron rebuked the pope last week for his assertions that the Falklands belong to Argentina. In a reference to the referendum, Cameron mixed metaphors by stating that the "white smoke over the Falklands was pretty clear."
Speaking in Brussels after a meeting with EU officials, Cameron added: "There was a pretty extraordinarily clear referendum in the Falkland Islands, and I think that is a message to everyone in the world that the people of these islands have chosen very clearly the future they want. And that choice should be respected by everybody."
Victoria Honeyman, a lecturer in British politics at University of Leeds, does not think it’s a big deal for Cameron not to attend the installation of the new pope.
“While clearly the inauguration of a new pope is a very important and significant event, particularly for a country with a sizable Catholic population, Britain is not a Catholic country, and therefore I expect [Cameron’s] attendance is not quite as important as it might be for other nations’ leaders,” she commented.
Meanwhile, Queen Elizabeth II will also not attend the installation – the Daily Mail reported that the most senior members of the British royal family to journey to Rome will be Prince Richard, the Duke of Gloucester, a cousin of the Queen.
As supreme governor of the (Protestant) Church of England, the Queen (or King) of England never attends papal installations.
Of course, given the events surrounding King Henry VIII from centuries ago, the British royals have had a less than cordial relationship with the Vatican.
Indeed, it was not until 1982 when a reigning pope visited Britain – that was Pope John Paul II, who visited nine cities and delivered 16 addresses. The Polish pontiff (and renowned world traveler) not only met with Queen Elizabeth but also with the then-Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie. (The Pope did not meet with then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.)
Ironically, that papal visit was almost canceled since Britain was at war with Argentina at the time after the military of that country invaded the Falklands.
Decades later, in September 2010, Pope Benedict XVI also visited the U.K., where he met with Queen Elizabeth as well as Cameron.
Some 9 percent of the British population is believed to be Roman Catholic.