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Pope causes stir in Argentina after holding controversial sign

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina -- Pope Francis raised eyebrows in his homeland of Argentina on Wednesday after being photographed in Rome holding a sign advocating for dialogue over the disputed Falkland Islands.

After his general audience appearance Wednesday, several news agencies shot pictures of Francis holding a sign that read: "It's time for dialogue between Argentina and the United Kingdom over the Falkland Islands."

However, Francis apparently was not purposely wading into the dispute. Father Tom Rosica, special assistant to the Director of the Holy See Press Office, released a statement saying that the "poster was handed to the Pope and he had no idea what the item was."

"The Holy Father did not even realize he had this object in his hands," the statement said. "He has discovered this just now after seeing the photograph."

While archbishop of Buenos Aires, the Rev. Jorge Bergoglio, as he was known then, sometimes spoke in nationalistic terms about the islands. Since becoming pope in 2013, however, Francis has refrained from talking about the dispute.

Soon after the photo began to show up on local websites, Argentina's foreign ministry tweeted that the pope "had received a pro-dialogue message" for Argentina and Britain.

Argentine President Cristina Fernandez also tweeted a few of the photos to her nearly 4 million followers with the hashtag #MalvinasArgentinas, referring to the islands' Spanish name.

In 2013, Fernandez formally asked the pope to intervene in the dispute, though he never has.

The Argentine army seized the islands in 1982 only to be defeated by a British force, but Argentina still claims sovereignty over the South Atlantic territory.

The issue always strikes a nerve in this country of 41 million people. But Britain has repeatedly said the question of sovereignty has been decided. In a 2013 referendum, the vast majority of Falkland residents voted to remain a British territory. According to a 2012 census, the islands have a population of about 2,563 people.

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