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Pope Resigns: Frontrunners Emerge For Role
Four frontrunners have emerged in the search for a new Pope following the shock resignation of Benedict XVI.
The major contenders to be Pope Benedict's successor include Cardinal Angelo Scola, Cardinal Peter Turkson, Cardinal Marc Ouellet and Cardinal Francis Arinze.
The prominence among the candidates of Cardinal Arinze, of Nigeria, and Cardinal Turkson, of Ghana, has raised hopes that the Catholic Church may appoint its first black Pope.
Catholic worshippers and clergy in Africa - where the church is rapidly growing - greeted the news of Benedict XVI's resignation with surprise.
But it has also led church leaders to speculate whether the next Pontiff may come from an African nation.
"I think we would have a better chance of getting someone outside of the northern hemisphere this time, because there are some really promising cardinals from other parts of the world," Cardinal Wilfrid Napier of South Africa said.
Cardinal Theodore Adrien Sarr of Senegal said that he had often pondered the idea of a Pope from Africa.
"I've been wondering about such a question since so many years now," he said.
"But is the church ready to have a Pope from Africa? Is the entire world ready to accept a Pope from Africa?"
Bookmakers' odds have listed Cardinal Arinze at 11/2 to become the next Pontiff, and Cardinal Turkson is at 3/1, according to Sky Bet.
The Pope announced his decision to resign in Latin during a meeting of Vatican cardinals on Monday.
The outgoing Pontiff said his "deteriorating" health meant he was becoming too old and frail to carry out his duties.
"After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths due to an advanced age are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry," he told the cardinals.
"I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only by words and deeds but no less with prayer and suffering."
He will be stepping down at the end of the month.
The last Pope to resign was Gregory XII in 1415 as part of a deal to end the Great Western schism - a split within the Catholic Church between 1378 to 1417 - among competing Papal claimants.
Benedict XVI called his choice "a decision of great importance for the life of the church".
Speaking at a hastily-arranged news conference on Monday, Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said: "The Pope caught us a bit by surprise.
"We should have a new pope for Easter."
He said a conclave could be held within 15 or 20 days of the resignation - and insisted Pope Benedict was not stepping down because of any difficulties in the Papacy.
The Vatican has been keen to stress that the Pope has not stepped down due to any specific illness.