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By Philip Pullella and Crispian Balmer
VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Conservative German cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected on Tuesday as leader of the world's 1.1 billion Roman Catholics, in a controversial choice to succeed Pope John Paul II.
Ratzinger, 78, the Church's 265th pontiff, will take the name of Benedict XVI. He is expected to defend John Paul's strict orthodox legacy and reject changes in Catholic doctrine. The white-haired new pope appeared on the balcony of St Peter's Basilica soon after his election by cardinals, smiling broadly and greeting tens of thousands of cheering faithful.
"I entrust myself to your prayers," he said as the crowd chanted "Papa! Papa! Papa!" and waved umbrellas and flags.
Benedict's election by a conclave meeting in the Vatican's frescoed Sistine Chapel was signaled by white smoke from the chapel chimney and the tolling of the bells of St. Peter's.
The speed of the election, on only the second day of the secret conclave, and its result were both a surprise.
Many Vatican experts had said Ratzinger, John Paul's tough doctrinal watchdog for 23 years, was too divisive and too old to become pope.
They had predicted he would have to cede to a more conciliatory compromise figure during the conclave although John Paul had appointed all but two of the cardinal electors and one of those two was Ratzinger himself. The election indicated both that the cardinals wanted to maintain John Paul's strict Church orthodoxy and also to have a short, transitional papacy after the Polish pope's 26-year reign -- the third longest in Church history.
"I was surprised for a couple of reasons. One is his age...The second is that I thought he might have been too much of a polarizing person. But that may not be the perception that was shared by the cardinals," said Lawrence Cunningham, theology professor at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.
"He is a very clever man, a great intellect and was very, very close to John Paul II. The one thing this Pontiff will represent is continuity," said Simon Caldwell of the British magazine Catholic Herald.
NEW POPE DOMINATED VATICAN AFTER JOHN PAUL'S DEATH
Ratzinger, dean of the cardinals, had dominated the Vatican since the death of Pope John Paul on April 2. He presided over the funeral Mass and daily meetings of cardinals since then.
He used a homily at a Mass before the conclave to issue a stern warning that godless modern trends must be rejected. The address was widely seen as promoting his candidacy.
He was expected to take a tough line against reformist trends in Europe and North America. In a Good Friday Mass this year he said: "How much filth there is in the Church, even among those who, in the priesthood, should belong entirely to Him."
Ratzinger's stern leadership of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, the modern successor to the Inquisition, delighted conservative Catholics but upset moderates and other Christians whose churches he described as deficient.
Before St. Peter's bells confirmed Benedict's election, there were 10 minutes of confusion over the color of the smoke, which initially seemed grey.
But even before the bells pealed, thousands of faithful in the square cheered and applauded, yelling "A pope, a pope!"
It was only the third time in a century that a pope had been chosen on the second day of a conclave. The new Pope had to win a two-thirds majority of the 115 red-robed cardinals.
NEW POPE TOUGH DISCIPLINARIAN
As John Paul's doctrinal overseer, Ratzinger disciplined Latin American "liberation theology" theologians, denounced homosexuality and gay marriage and pressured Asian priests who saw non-Christian religions as part of God's plan for humanity.
In a document in 2000, he branded other Christian churches as deficient -- shocking Anglicans, Lutherans and other Protestants in ecumenical dialogue with Rome for years.
Ratzinger was the oldest cardinal to be named pope since Clement XII, who was also 78 when he became pope in 1730. He is the first German pope since Victor II (1055-1057).
Before the conclave door shut on Monday, Ratzinger made a final appeal to his fellow electors to protect traditional teachings and to shun modern trends.
He made no mention of the challenges that other cardinals and ordinary Catholics say should top the agenda such as poverty, Islam, science, sexual morality and Church reform.
Born in Bavaria on April 16, 1927, Ratzinger was a leading theology professor and then archbishop of Munich before taking over the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1981.