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Bulgaria: Pope's Visit Will Attempt To Heal Rift With Orthodox Church

Pope John Paul II is due arrived in Sofia today at the start of a four-day visit to Bulgaria. Bulgaria is the sixth predominantly Orthodox country the pope has visited in the past three years. RFE/RL's Jolyon Naegele reports that trying to heal the rift with the Orthodox Church and absolving Bulgaria for responsibility for the attempt on his life 21 years ago are among the tasks facing the pontiff.

Prague, 23 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A choir performed as Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass today in Baku, shortly before he departed the Azerbaijani capital for his next stop, Bulgaria.

Roman Catholics in Bulgaria number between 70,000 and 80,000, or barely 1 percent of Bulgaria's population. Orthodox Bulgarians, in contrast, make up about 80 percent of the population.

The Vatican says the pope's visit to Azerbaijan and Bulgaria is intended to promote Catholic dialogue with Islam and Orthodoxy. A senior Bulgarian Orthodox official, Metropolitan Gavriil, was more cautious. He says the pope's visit "will hardly overcome the differences between Catholicism and Orthodoxy, but it could enable dialogue."

The Catholic Church has faced hostility from the Orthodox Church throughout the region since the split between Rome and Byzantium in 1054. The 12 years since the collapse of communism have witnessed a series of attempts by the pope to heal the wounds of the nearly 1,000-year-old schism, above all in six visits to Orthodox-majority states over the last three years. The pontiff has already visited Romania, Georgia, Greece, Ukraine, and Armenia.

Another key purpose of the visit is to help heal a rift within the hierarchy of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov says the papal visit could contribute to a reunification of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. The rift is between the old guard, including Patriarch Maxim, and several bishops who for the past decade have been demanding Maxim's resignation. They accuse him of having been subservient to the communists since his appointment in 1971. That dispute continues at a variety of levels, including over property. The Orthodox Church's standing in Bulgarian society has suffered as a result.

Moreover, government after government in Sofia over the past decade has failed to persuade Maxim to agree to a papal visit. Bulgarian politicians had hoped such a visit would help absolve Bulgaria of complicity in the 1981 attempt on the life of the pope by Turkish gunman Mehmet Ali Agca.

Italian investigators suspected the plot was masterminded by the Soviet KGB and carried out by its Bulgarian counterpart, the DS. Italian authorities charged three Turks and three Bulgarians with conspiring with Agca to kill the pope, but a Rome court released all but Agca for lack of evidence.

The Orthodox Church finally relented under pressure from the prime minister and former king, Simeon Saxecoburggotski, and agreed to allow the papal visit to go ahead. Orthodox Patriarch Maxim, who is 87 years old, now says he will receive the ailing pope, five years his junior, "with typical Bulgarian hospitality."

Bulgarian Foreign Minister Solomon Pasi, referring to the alleged Bulgarian connections to the 1981 assassination attempt on the pope, says, "We have been waiting for 21 years for this undeserved blemish to be cleared from the name of Bulgaria."

The Catholic Church has functioned in Bulgaria since 1565. Since the mid-19th century, two types of liturgy have been used -- Latin in the dioceses of Sofia-Plovdiv and Russe-Nikopol, and the Eastern or Byzantine rite, which exists in large parts of Bulgaria.

The Catholic Church in Bulgaria underwent something of a renaissance in the 1920s and '30s when it was supported by the apostolic nuncio Angelo Roncalli, who went on to become Pope John XXIII.

However, under communist rule, Catholic clerics were imprisoned, many priests and bishops were killed and church property was confiscated, while the Orthodox Church was looked at by many as being a virtual arm of communist power.

When asked earlier this week whether he foresees a drawing together of Catholics and Orthodox believers as a result of the papal visit, Maxim said it is time for Bulgarian Catholics to return to Orthodoxy. As he put it, "We profess, we preach, we affirm and we set great store by the Orthodox confession, and we want those who have strayed from the Orthodox truth to return to holy Orthodoxy."

In addition to meeting Bulgarian political and religious leaders in Sofia, Pope John Paul II will also visit the Orthodox Rila monastery in the southwest of the country and the city of Plovdiv, where many Catholics reside. He will participate in prayers at Alexander Nevski Cathedral for Saints Cyril and Methodius, patron saints of Bulgaria, who are credited with bringing the Bible to the Slavs in their own tongue. Cyril created the Cyrillic alphabet.