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Slovakia: Pope Visits For Third Time Amid Domestic Row Over Abortion

Pope John Paul II arrived in Slovakia today for a four-day visit, his third in just over a decade. RFE/RL reports from Bratislava.

Bratislava, 11 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- When he touches down at Bratislava airport this morning Pope John Paul II will be returning to familiar ground.

It's his third visit here in little over a decade -- the second to an independent Slovakia. Some 1 million pilgrims, many from outside the country, are expected to throng to the three Masses the pope is scheduled to give.

Bishop Rudolf Balaz says the visit will be spiritually uplifting at a time when many Slovaks are preoccupied by political rows or economic hardship: "I think we're awaiting his visit so that the mood in society -- the tensions, all sorts of antagonisms, animosities at top government levels and among ordinary people, the nervousness -- so that all this gets back on the right course and things really get better for all of us in this country."

On his last trip here, eight years ago, the pope canonized three priests martyred in the 17th century. This time around, at a Mass in Bratislava on 14 September, he'll beatify two more modern-day religious figures: Greek Catholic Bishop Vasil Hopko and nun Zdenka Schelingova, both victims of communist repression.

Before then, he'll have traveled across the country, from Trnava in the west to Banska Bystrica in central Slovakia and Roznava in the east.

This is foreign trip number 102 for the 83-year-old pope, and his failing health has prompted the now routine concern it could be his last. It's meant a slight scaling back of his program -- there won't be the usual meetings with young people, for example.

Even so, the four-day visit will involve several short plane rides and at least a dozen other journeys to and fro, as well as Masses and meetings with top church and state officials.

Politics may also enter into the pope's visit, as it comes amid a domestic row over abortion, which the Catholic Church strictly forbids.

At issue in Slovakia is a rule that allows abortion until the 24th week of pregnancy in case of serious genetic defects.

One party in the government, the Christian Democrats, is challenging the rule in the constitutional court. But their liberal coalition partners Alliance of a New Citizen (ANO) are pushing to have the rule anchored in law.

The row nearly caused the government's collapse earlier this summer, and it has put some secular Slovaks on edge about the church's influence in politics.

Andrej is not among them. Andrej will be taking part in the pope's visit more closely than most -- he'll be the assistant organist at the 14 September open-air Mass in Bratislava's huge Petrzalka housing project. He says the Catholic Church has a right to speak out on issues of concern, such as abortion.

"The church speaks out, not on politics but on issues that concern it or believers. Whether that's totally right, I can't say for sure, but I think that it is. It has the right to express its opinion. It's a part of society, so it has that right," Andrej says.

One more controversy has been the cost to Slovakia of the pope's visit, which is estimated at more than $2 million.

But Slovak Archbishop Jan Sokol says the value of the visit cannot be counted in money: "Despite the publicity that's been largely negative, and which has centered solely on the financial aspect, we expect this visit to have a great spiritual impact, and we expect it will boost Slovakia's image abroad."

For Jana, a woman with young children, yesterday's rain and the expected crowds put her off from going to see the pope today. But she says she'll be watching on television. And she agrees that the money is well-spent: "I think the visit will be positive. It's really nice he's chosen Slovakia for the third time. Even though we're a small country, more than 1,000 journalists have been accredited, so it can only be a plus for us. I travel a lot, and I know that people still get us mixed up [and don't know where Slovakia is]."

(RFE/RL's Slovak Service contributed to this report.)