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Pope hits 1M followers as he blesses online fans and tweets: 'Dear friends...'

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VATICAN CITY - Pope Benedict XVI hit the 1 million Twitter follower mark on Wednesday as he sent his first tweet from his new account, blessing his online fans and urging them to listen to Christ.

In perhaps the most drawn out Twitter launch ever, the 85-year-old Benedict tapped the screen of a tablet brought to him at the end of his general audience after the equivalent of a papal drum roll by an announcer who intoned: "And now the pope will tweet!"

"Dear friends, I am pleased to get in touch with you through Twitter. Thank you for your generous response. I bless all of you from my heart," the inaugural tweet read.

At around the same time the message was sent, the number of followers of Benedict's (at)Pontifex accounts surpassed the 1 million mark, with all eight languages of the pope's account combined.

While the (at)Pontifex English account remains the most popular, nearing 800,000 followers, the pope is tweeting simultaneously in Spanish, Italian, French, Portuguese, German, Polish and Arabic. Each language has its own handle, though they're all the pope's account: (at)Pontifex_es, for Spanish for example, (at)Pontifex_it for Italian, (at)Pontifex_fr for French, and so on.

The first papal tweet has been the subject of intense curiosity — as well as merciless jokes, criticism and commentary. "The pope has an iPad?" comedian Jon Stewart asked earlier this year. The Onion satirical newspaper ran a piece "Pope tweets picture of self with God." And in perhaps a more long-term and problematic issue for the Vatican, the (at)Pontifex handle was flooded with negative messages from users remarking on the clerical sex abuse scandal.

Vatican officials have said they expected such negativity, but that is a risk they take by putting the Catholic Church's message out.

"These are already all over the Internet, in newspapers, in so many forms of expression," the Rev. Antonio Spadaro, editor of the Jesuit magazine "Civilta Cattolica," told Vatican Radio this week. "They form part of ordinary communication."

Benedict actually sent his first tweet over a year ago, using a generic Vatican account to launch the Holy See's news information portal. Someone in his name tweeted daily during Lent, part of the Vatican's efforts to increase the church presence in social media.

A personal Twitter account for Benedict has been the subject of speculation ever since the Vatican's senior communications official said in February the idea was gaining traction.

Vatican officials have acknowledged the pope won't actually type the messages and that someone in the Vatican's secretariat of state will write them on his behalf. And so it happened on Wednesday: Benedict just tapped the screen on the tablet to send the inaugural tweet.

But about an hour later, a Vatican official tweeted a question that had been sent to the pope in the long run-up to the launch, asking his advice about how to be more faithful in daily life. "By speaking with Jesus in prayer, listening to what he tells you in the Gospel and looking for him in those in need," the responding tweet read.

Later still, a third tweet, responding to a question about how faith can be lived in a world without hope: "We can be certain that a believer is never alone. God is the solid rock upon which we build our lives and his love is always faithful," it said.

The Vatican has insisted that the words are Benedict's alone, culled from his speeches, homilies or catechism lessons.

As incongruous as it may seem for Benedict to be on Twitter, Vatican officials have stressed that he is merely walking in the footsteps of his predecessors in using the latest in communications technology to spread the faith.

Pope Pius XI, for example, caused a similar stir when he launched Vatican Radio some 80 years ago to bring the pope's message on radio waves around the globe. The Vatican also has its own newspaper, television service and maintains dedicated YouTube channels and an Internet news portal.

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Pope is at www.twitter.com/pontifex

Follow Nicole Winfield at www.twitter.com/nwinfield

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