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Pope moves to heal ancient rift

ATHENS, Greece -- Pope John Paul II has asked God to forgive Catholics for sins committed against Orthodox Christians during the 1,000 years the two Church branches have been split.

The Pontiff made the comments on Friday during a six-day pilgrimage to Greece, Syria and Malta -- a trip that Vatican officials say is intended to improve relations with Orthodox Christians and Muslims.

Hundreds of conservative Greek Orthodox believers have joined protests against the visit, with banners calling the Pope the "anti-Christ" and "persona non grata."

They blame the Catholic Church for the Great Schism of 1054 which divided Christianity into Eastern and Western branches.

In an address to Greece's Orthodox leader Archbishop Christodoulos, the Pope said: "For the occasions past and present, when the sons and daughters of the Catholic Church have sinned by actions and omission against their Orthodox brothers and sisters may the Lord grant us the forgiveness we beg of him."

He specifically cited the 1204 sacking of Constantinople by Crusaders, an act he said filled today's Catholics with "deep regret."

During his 24-hour stay in Greece, protesters plan to drape monasteries in black, ring church bells in mourning and there have been threats to block the papal motorcade from reaching Areopagus hill, where Paul made his sermons in 51 A.D.

The Pope, who is turning 81 this month, descended the steps of his plane slowly but unaided to be greeted by a Greek Air Force honour guard.

No senior members of the Greek Orthodox Church turned out to welcome him.

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Anthee Carassavas, Journalist: Visit begrudgingly accepted

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CNN's Jim Bitterman: Pope's visit tries to heal rift

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  COUNTRY PROFILE
At a glance: Greece

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John Paul II is the first Roman Catholic leader to visit the country -- where more than 95 percent of the population are baptized in the Orthodox Church -- since the Great Schism of 1054 divided Christianity into Eastern and Western branches.

Since then the relationship between the traditions has been characterised by suspicion, occasionally spilling into open hostility.

Before Friday's apology, the Vatican had already agreed to move a Mass on Saturday from the 80,000-seat Olympic Stadium to a small indoor arena.

The Vatican has also spoken about alleged discrimination against Greece's 50,000 native-born Roman Catholics. There are also about 150,000 Catholic immigrants.

Greek Orthodox Church leaders did however denounce the demonstrators as members of fringe religious groups.

"These people ... have no official relation with the church of Greece," said Haris Konidaris, a spokesman for Greek Orthodox leader Archbishop Christodoulos. "Acts of fanaticism and zealots are very few."

These 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."

A massive security operation is taking place in Athens, with more than 5,000 police patrolling the city and many main roads blocked to traffic.

John Paul II has worked hard at dialogue with the Orthodox church in the last decade with visits to Orthodox countries including Romania and Georgia.

But the backlash is more intense in Greece, where the Orthodox clerics portray themselves as guardians of both the nation's ethnic identity and the heartland of the world's more than 200 million Orthodox faithful.

Later in his tour in Syria, where Saint Paul converted to Christianity on the road to Damascus, the Pope will become the first Catholic leader to enter a mosque when he visits the tomb of John the Baptist.

He will also issue a peace appeal for the region, having visited Israel and all border nations that have been at war with it.

After four days there, the Pope ends his trip in predominantly Catholic Malta, presiding at a beatification ceremony for two Maltese priests and a nun.



RELATED STORIES:
Pope begins controversial tour
May 3, 2001
Greeks protest over Pope's visit
May 2, 2001

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

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