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Romania: Pope's Visit Seen As Start Of Key Catholic-Orthodox Dialogue

Bucharest, 6 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The leaders of Romania's Christian denominations today welcomed tomorrow's visit of Pope John Paul as a step toward meaningful dialogue between the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches.

Leaders of the Romanian Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Greek Catholic churches stressed at a news conference in Bucharest that the pope's visit will be ecumenical in nature and not pastoral, as it would be if the pope visited a predominantly Catholic nation.

The Archbishop of Slobozia, Nifon, said the Romanian Orthodox Church hopes the three-day visit will create the conditions necessary to begin a dialogue with the Catholic and Orthodox churches.

"Romanian Orthodoxy hopes that the pope's visit in Romania will promote a theological dialogue between Catholic and Orthodox churches by creating a fraternal atmosphere between the Orthodox and Greek-Catholic communities, an atmosphere that was created in spite of the difficulties. And also, we hope that the visit of his Holiness will have a positive effect over the general ecumenical climate in Romania."

The pope's visit will be confined to Bucharest and will include ecumenical ceremonies and both Eastern rite and Latin Masses attended by the pope and the Romanian Patriarch Theoctist. The pope will also meet Romanian President Emil Constantinescu.

The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Bucharest, Ioan Robu, said an estimated 60,000 Roman Catholics are expected to come to Bucharest for the papal visit from the Romanian regions of Transylvania and Moldova. Thousands of Greek Catholics and Orthodox faithful are also expected to visit the city this weekend. Journalists at today's news conference repeatedly asked why the decision was made to exclude Transylvania, where many of the country's Catholics live, from the pope's itinerary.

Nifon said the decision on the pope's itinerary followed negotiations between the Vatican and the Romanian Orthodox church and was acceptable to both sides. He dismissed press reports that indicated the Russian Orthodox church had pressured the Romanian Orthodox church to limit the scope of the trip. He said full authority for the decision to invite the pope rested with the synod of the Romanian Orthodox Church.

"Regarding the Russian Orthodox Church ... we don't need to receive indications or opinions from the Russian Orthodox Church as I saw in the press. Not even in the Communist times before 1989, the Romanian Orthodox Church didn't hear or receive such indications."

Pope John Paul's papacy has been distinguished by a number of significant ecumenical gestures. He has made a historic visit to a synagogue in Rome, met with young Muslims in Casablanca and prayed with representatives of major world religions in a special meeting in Assisi.

But never in the 21 years of his papacy has the pope visited a country where Orthodox Christians predominate. In Romania, the difficulty posed by such a visit did not involve the country's estimated one million Roman Catholics, who were allowed to operate in relative freedom under the communist regime, but the smaller Greek Catholic church. The Greek Catholics worship like the Orthodox but recognize the pope as spiritual head. The Greek Catholic Church, with an estimated 1.8 million worshipers before World War Two, was banned by the communists in 1948. Nearly 2,000 of their churches were turned over to Orthodox parishes and a small percentage have been handed back since the faith was legalized again in 1990. The ownership of hundreds of buildings is now in dispute. The property restitution issue is among the topics of discussion between Vatican and Romanian Orthodox officials this weekend.

A Greek Orthodox bishop, Virgil Bercea, told today's news conference he expects there to be significant progress in ecumenical efforts because of the pope's visit.

"I think that I can say with confidence that we can make more steps forward just from tomorrow here in Bucharest in the meetings that we will have. I think that some things can be clearly seen. [Greek Catholics] in this moment, we don't have any more fear or unease to meet each other, our Orthodox brothers, and the fact that we pray together represents a fantastic step."

Bercea and Robu, the Roman Catholic archbishop, said they are hopeful the meetings in Romania will open the way for further dialogue between the Vatican and the Orthodox churches of Russia and Ukraine. Robu says he is not aware of any messages sent from the Russian Orthodox Church to the Vatican in response to the Romanian trip.

(Radu Busneag of the Romanian Service contributed to this report.)