Bucharest, 10 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- It became clear soon after Pope John Paul arrived in Romania on Friday (May 7), the first ever visit by the pontiff to a country with an Orthodox Christian majority, that this was not going to be a typical papal trip.
John Paul is a noted linguist but there were still cheers of surprise when he began to deliver his airport speech in Romanian, the first time most people had heard him speak the language. After the welcoming ceremonies at Baneasa Airport, John Paul departed in his popemobile, standing side-by-side with Romanian Orthodox Patriarch Teoctist. The pope sharing his vehicle with another church leader is a very uncommon site.
When the pope and patriarch arrived at the Romanian Orthodox headquarters in central Bucharest, they sat side by side in common prayer, a symbolic gesture aimed at narrowing the centuries-old split between Catholicism and Orthodoxy.
As leaders of both churches have pointed out this week, this papal visit is an ecumenical one. As the pope said in his opening remarks, it is aimed at healing the rifts between the small Greek Catholic church -- heavily persecuted under communism -- and the Orthodox church, the faith, at least nominally, of about 85 percent of Romanians.
"I trust that my visit will heal the wounds which occurred in relations between our churches in the last 50 years, and that my visit will open a period of mutual collaboration full of trust."
The Greek Catholic church, with about 500,000 members in Romania, recognizes the authority of the pope but follows an Eastern rite liturgy. Vatican support for the church since the fall of communism has been treated suspiciously by the dominant Orthodox Church in Romania and some neighboring Slavic countries as an attempt at proselytizing.
The Vatican and Greek Catholic leaders, for their part, are seeking to recover the numerous properties seized by the communist government in Romania and given to the Orthodox Church. The restitution issue is expected to be discussed in private meetings between the pope and Patriarch Teoctist this weekend.
The patriarch said in his welcoming speech that the Romanian church sees itself in an important position to bridge the gap between the two churches.
"The Romanian Orthodox Church assumes the role that every church should have: to bring the (two) churches closer with each other and regain unity. This visit itself is part of that act."
The pope's visit is also seen in Romania as an important indication that the country is becoming more democratic, a point made repeatedly in press reports and in random conversations in the capital, Bucharest.
The pope himself said in comments later at the Romanian Orthodox headquarters that he hopes a growing understanding among religions in Romania will "develop into unity and harmony among the people of your country and the European continent."
There are also scheduled meetings later on Friday between the pope and President Emil Constantinescu. The president referred to the human rights tragedy in Kosovo in his comments welcoming the pope at the airport.
"Just nearby there is a bloody conflict. We cannot fail to react when the people are killed and deported. We cannot have no reaction when, because of their leaders, an entire people are suffering. Being Christians, we are suffering for every citizen of our neighboring country, being Serb or Albanian, Hungarian or Slav."
There were no immediate references by the pope or patriarch to Kosovo but it was likely to be discussed during the weekend.