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Papal visit sparks Greek protests

ATHENS, Greece -- Pope John Paul II has arrived in Greece at the start of one of his most controversial tours.

Following the footsteps of the Apostle Paul, the Pontiff is making a six-day pilgrimage to Greece, Syria and Malta during which Vatican officials say he will be seeking to improve relations with Orthodox Christians and Muslims.

But hundreds of conservative Greek Orthodox believers have joined protests against the visit, with banners calling the Pope the "anti-Christ" and "persona non grata."


During his 24-hour stay in Greece they plan to drape monasteries in black, ring church bells in mourning and there have been threats to block the papal motorcade from reaching Areopagus hill, where Paul made his sermons in 51 A.D.

John Paul II's visit is the first time a Roman Catholic leader has visited the country -- where more than 95 percent of the population are baptized in the Orthodox Church -- since the Great Schism of 1054 divided Christianity into Eastern and Western branches.

Since then the relationship between the traditions has been characterised by suspicion, occasionally spilling into open hostility.

Conservative believers blame the Pope for the Schism and the Fourth Crusade that sacked Constantinople in 1204, among other things.

There is also fear that he will use the trip to gain converts.

But Greek Orthodox Church leaders have denounced the demonstrations, saying they are organised by members of fringe religious groups.

"These people ... have no official relation with the church of Greece," Konidaris said. "Acts of fanaticism and zealots are very few."

His sentiments were echoed by the Greek Foreign Ministry, whose spokesman said: "Incidents and gatherings by various fringe religious groups do not represent the vast majority of the Greek people and the country's policy toward the head of the Roman Catholic Church."

A massive security operation in Athens will see more than 5,000 police patrolling the city and many main roads blocked to traffic.

A major source of controversy has been the Pope's ritual of kissing the soil when he lands -- a tradition the Vatican says is intended to show respect to the host nation.

As a compromise Roman Catholic officials in Greece had suggested John Paul be offered an olive branch instead, but after insistence by the Vatican the soil-kissing has been put back on the Pope's programme.

The Pope originally used to kiss the ground but due to his increasing frailty -- he is turning 81 this month -- he is now offered a vessel holding soil.

John Paul II has worked hard at dialogue with the Orthodox church in the last decade with visits to Orthodox countries including Romania and Georgia.

But the backlash is more intense in Greece, where the Orthodox clerics portray themselves as guardians of both the nation's ethnic identity and the heartland of the world's more than 200 million Orthodox faithful.

Later in his tour in Syria, where Saint Paul converted to Christianity on the road to Damascus, the Pope will become the first Catholic leader to enter a mosque when he visits the tomb of John the Baptist.

He will also issue a peace appeal for the region, having visited Israel and all border nations that have been at war with it.

After four days there, the Pope ends his trip in predominantly Catholic Malta, presiding at a beatification ceremony for two Maltese priests and a nun.

Greeks protest over Pope's visit
May 2, 2001
Pope's Syria visit evokes memories of old conflicts
April 29, 2001

Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Greek Orthodox Church
Roman Catholic Church in Greece

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