Pope Francis has urged Bulgarians to open their hearts and homes to migrants, arguing that a country like Bulgaria, which is losing its population to emigration, should well understand the forces that drive people to leave their native lands.
Francis made the call upon arrival in Bulgaria on May 5 to meet with members of the country’s small Catholic community and to visit a refugee center outside the capital, Sofia, as part of a trip that will also take him to North Macedonia.
Francis has sought to bridge enduring tensions between the Orthodox and Roman Catholic branches of Christianity, including with a landmark February 2016 meeting in Cuba with Patriarch Kirill, the head of Russian Orthodox Church.
However, the Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church has rejected any possibility of holding joint prayers with the pope.
"We would like to emphasize that any form of shared liturgical or prayer service, as well as wearing of liturgical garments, is unacceptable to us as the holy canons do not allow this," the Holy Synod said ahead of Francis's arrival.
The Pope plans to tour a refugee center. Francis is also meeting with Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, whose center-right, pro-Brussels coalition government includes three nationalist, anti-migrant parties. The government has called for the closure of EU borders to migrants and sealed off its own frontier to Turkey with a barbed-wire fence.
Human rights groups and the European Commission have accused Bulgaria of violating EU asylum laws.
"I was happy to welcome a man who is the symbol of faith in our world. Pope Francis's prayers for peace are extremely important for our region that stretches from Ukraine to the east to the Western Balkans," Borisov said as he greeted the Pope at the airport.
Francis and the Vatican had hoped to hold a joint "prayer for peace" in a Sofia square on May 6.
The Orthodox Church will instead send a children's choir to the event, which will be attended by one of Sofia's Muslim leaders.
Bulgaria’s is the only Orthodox church that did not choose to participate in a commission looking to improve dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church, which has some 44,000 adherents in Bulgaria.
Prime Minister Borisov welcomed Francis's visit, saying it "reflects his interest in the peaceful economic development of the Balkans."
Francis will also visit North Macedonia on the three-day trip and attend a commemoration of the late Mother Teresa, who was born Anjeze Gonxhe Bojaxhiu in Skopje in 1910.
North Macedonia has an estimated 20,000 Roman Catholic followers.