British and Irish bookmakers ranked Nigeria's Cardinal Francis Arinze, Peter Turkson of Ghana and Canadian Marc Ouellet on Monday as favorites to lead the Roman Catholic Church, setting odds swiftly after Pope Benedict's shock resignation.
Meanwhile, US President Barack Obama said he extended his appreciation and prayers to Pope Benedict.
plays a critical role in the United States and the world, and I wish the best to those who will soon gather to choose His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI's successor," Obama said in a statement.
William Hill, Britain's
largest bookmaker, offered odds of 3/1 against for Arinze, or a probability of 25 percent, while Ouellet and Turkson were priced at 7/2 against, meaning successful punters would win seven pounds for every two staked.
Turkson and Pope John Paul II (Photo: AFP)
Irish bookmaker Paddy Power had the same three cardinals as leading contenders but placed Ouellet as favorite ahead of the two Africans. Britain's Ladbrokes narrowly made Turkson its initial frontrunner.
"I have been taking bets on the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury for as long as I care to remember," said William Hill spokesman Graham Sharpe, denying that gambling on the papal succession was blasphemous.
Arinze and Benedict, who was then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, were both among the bookmakers' favorites in 2005 when the German was elected to succeed Pope John Paul II, Sharpe said.
Cardinal Francis Arinze (Photo: AFP)
In Africa, where the Catholic church continues to grow, worshippers and clergy there greeted Pope Benedict XVI's announcement Monday with hopes that the continent would see one of its own rise to lead the faithful.
"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 told The Associated Press.
"It's a question of where is the kind of (and) the quality of leadership evident at the moment: Coming from a growing background rather than a holding or a maintenance background?"
Some 176 million people in Africa are Catholic, roughly a third of all Christians across the continent, according to a December 2011 study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Meanwhile, the number of Catholics in Europe, the traditional stronghold of the church, has dropped in recent years.
Benedict called his choice "a decision of great importance for the life of the church."
"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 the demands of being the pope, he told the cardinals.
"In order to govern the bark (ship) of St. Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary - strengths which in the last few months, have deteriorated in me," he said.
Reuters and AP contributed to this report
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