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Pope begins controversial tour

ATHENS, Greece -- Pope John Paul II is beginning a six-day pilgrimage to Greece, Syria and Malta amid controversy and protests.

Orthodox Greeks have been protesting against the Pope's visit to the country all week -- with banners referring to him as 'the anti-Christ' and 'persona non grata.'

In Syria, the Pope will become the first Catholic leader to enter a mosque when he visits the tomb of John the Baptist.

The ageing pontiff is following in the footsteps of John the Baptist, but Vatican officials have also said he hopes to improve relations with Orthodox Christians and Muslims.

In Greece, there had been doubt that the Pope would be allowed to kiss the soil on his arrival - a tradition intended to show respect to the host nation.

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Roman Catholic officials in Greece had suggested the Pope be offered an olive branch instead fearing that anti-Pope protests could escalate in Greece,

But after insistence by the Vatican, the soil-kissing was definitively added to the Pope's programme.

In recent years, the sometime frail Pope has been offered a vessel holding soil to kiss.

"Proposals were made so that there would be no misunderstanding from the fellow Orthodox Church," Reverend Petros Roussos, a representative of Greece's small Roman Catholic community, told Associated Press.

While the Roman Catholic Church in Greece believed dropping the soil-kissing gesture would be "the most peaceful" compromise with the Greek Orthodox, Roussos said the Vatican did not want to break the tradition.

Hundreds of Greek Orthodox protesters have denounced the papal visit to the "sacred soil" of Greece, and have described the Pope as the anti-Christ during demonstrations in recent weeks.

The Pope will retrace the steps of the Saint Paul, who converted to Christianity on the road to Damascus.

Other difficulties involved a proposed joint text by the leader of the Greek Orthodox Church and the Pope.

Haris Konidaris, a spokesman for Greek Orthodox leader Archbishop Christodoulos, said the Greek church welcomed the Pope's visit, but added: "The Orthodox Church expects the pope to make a humble, bold gesture. This could heal nearly 1,000 years of mistrust."

Christianity split into the Orthodox and Roman Catholic branches nearly 1,000 years ago over the issue of papal authority.

But the content of the proposed text has not been finalised.

As well as an apology from the Pope, the Greek church reportedly asked the Pope to comment on the war-divided island of Cyprus, split since a 1974 Turkish invasion triggered by a coup by supporters of union with Greece.

Many Greek Orthodox believe the Vatican is hostile to Orthodox Christians and blame it for the fall of the Greek Byzantine Empire in the 15th century.

Greek Orthodox Church leaders have denounced the demonstrations, saying they are organised by members of fringe religious groups.

"These people ... have no official relation with the church of Greece," Konidaris said. "Acts of fanaticism and zealots are very few."

His sentiments were echoed by the Greek Foreign Ministry, whose spokesman said: "Incidents and gatherings by various fringe religious groups do not represent the vast majority of the Greek people and the country's policy toward the head of the Roman Catholic Church."

The statement came after more than 1,000 religious conservatives gathered in central Athens chanting "Out with the Pope" and handing out leaflets describing the Pope as the "arch-heretic."

Several groups have staged rallies in Athens and held all-night vigils in monasteries to pray against the visit.

Security will be extremely tight with more than 5,000 police patrolling the city and many main roads in Athens blocked to traffic.



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RELATED SITES:
Vatican
Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Greek Orthodox Church
Roman Catholic Church in Greece

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