Pope Francis is Time person of the year

New York (AFP) - Time magazine named Pope Francis its person of the year on Wednesday, hailing the head of the Catholic Church as a new voice of global conscience since taking office in March.

The 76-year-old, who rose from modest beginnings and has been praised for his down-to-earth approach, is the first non-European pope in nearly 1,300 years, the first Latin American head of the Church and a leading voice for the dispossessed.

He has taken on leadership of a 1.2-billion-strong Church beset by scandal and signs of deep internal dysfunction, but there are signs his popularity is revitalising it.

Time's runner-up was NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, who has been granted asylum in Russia and with whom Time published an exclusive interview Wednesday conducted over email.

NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

"For pulling the papacy out of the palace and into the streets, for committing the world's largest church to confronting its deepest needs and for balancing judgment with mercy, Pope Francis is TIME's 2013 Person of the Year," said managing editor Nancy Gibbs.

She said it was rare for a new figure on the world stage to capture so much attention so quickly -- from the "young and old, faithful and cynical."

"He has placed himself at the very center of the central conversations of our time: about wealth and poverty, fairness and justice, transparency, modernity, globalisation, the role of women, the nature of marriage, the temptations of power," said Gibbs.

Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi welcomed the accolade, not because the pope sought fame but because it would give people hope.

"It is a positive sign that one of the most prestigious acknowledgements in international media should be given to someone who preaches spiritual, religious and moral values in the world and speaks effectively in favour of peace and more justice," he said.

"If this draws women and men and gives them hope, the pope is happy."

The pope last week set up a committee to fight child sex abuse in the Catholic Church and give pastoral care to victims following a recommendation from a council of cardinals he asked to advise him.

The scandals -- many of them dating back decades -- have scarred the Church worldwide and led to sharp drops in public confidence in countries such as Ireland and the United States.

Snowden, the fugitive US intelligence leaker whose disclosures of classified documents has rattled Washington, said he had acted to force reforms and to direct the NSA to focus "its tremendous power toward developing new global technical standards that enforce robust end-to-end security."

"What we recoil against is not that such surveillance can theoretically occur, but that it was done without a majority of society even being aware it was possible," he told Time.

In third place was US gay rights activist Edith Windsor in honor of her victory in June when the US Supreme Court granted same-sex married couples the same federal benefits as heterosexual couples.

Gay rights activist Edith Windsor.

In fourth place was Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for managing not only to survive but turn the tide of the civil war his way.

"The mild-mannered ophthalmologist-turned-Old-Testament-tyrant has taught his neighbors an ancient lesson: that absolute, unrelenting brutality combined with geostrategic cleverness is the most likely way to retain power in the Middle East," the magazine wrote.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad

In fifth place was Republican Tea Party US Senator Ted Cruz, who pushed the October shutdown of the federal government in an ideological war over President Barack Obama's medical care bill.

Tea Party Senator Ted Cruz.