Tango treat for birthday boy Pope Francis

Rome (AFP) - Hundreds of couples performed a tango on St Peter's square on Wednesday in a birthday treat for Pope Francis, a proud Argentinian who was reportedly a mean dancer himself in his youth.

With the recent gloomy weather giving way to sparkling sunshine and an azure sky, an even higher authority than the pontiff appeared to have given his blessing to the celebrations.

The pope was born Jose Bergoglio on December 17, 1936 in Buenos Aires, also the birthplace of the tango, a sultry dance with strong sexual connotations that was once described as a sensual metaphor for life.

The dancers, from all over Italy and further afield, were among 13,000 people at St Peter's for the pope's weekly public audience.

Non-dancing well-wishers came bearing gifts including a birthday cake and mate, a traditional Argentinian drink, before listening to the leader of the world's Catholics issue a solemn condemnation of recent terrorist atrocities in Pakistan, Yemen and Australia.

Having being briefed on what was going to follow, the pope paid tribute to the assembled dancers during the section of his address where he greets the various groups in the square.

"I see the 'tangeros' are here. They will put on a great show and bring a wind from the pampas over here," he said in Spanish.

Around midday, the dancing started. "Happy Birthday, Pope Francis! Let's widen out this circle," shouted Cristina Carmorani, a dance teacher from Conventello, near Ravenna in northeastern Italy.

It was Carmorani who came up with the idea for the birthday tango and launched an appeal for couples via Facebook.

"I am not a believer but I wanted to pay tribute to the pope for what he has done and the changes he has initiated," said one of the dancers, Achille Lolla.

His partner Rosalba added: "François stands for moral honesty."

- 'I love it' -

The pope revealed his passion for the beguiling tunes to which the dance is performed in an interview several years before he became pontiff.

"I love it. It's something that comes from deep within me," he said. His younger sister has been quoted as saying that the pontiff, a keen sportsman in his youth, was also a very accomplished dancer.

Last year, on the first anniversary of his election as pope, Radio Vatican marked the occasion by playing several of his favourite tango tunes, including the famous "Por una Cabeza" ("By a head") by Carlos Gardel.

The papal birthday was celebrated in a very different style by the "Papaboys", an association of young Catholics who had organised a 24-hour prayer marathon at the San Lorenzo hostel for pilgrims visiting Rome.

Spanish poultry farmers sent 800 kilogrammes (1,750 pounds) of chicken to be distributed by the Vatican's charity services via soup kitchens for the homeless around the Catholic headquarters.

The Vatican press office said there would be a surprise for the poor later in the day, without releasing any further details.