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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 year split between the two traditions.
The Pope made the appeal on the first day of a controversial six-day pilgrimage following the steps of Saint Paul to Greece, Syria and Malta.
Vatican officials say the trip is intended to improve relations with Orthodox Christians and Muslims.
"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," the Pontiff said in an address to Greece's Orthodox leader Archbishop Christodoulos.
John Paul II is first Roman Catholic leader to visit the country -- where more than 95 percent of the population are baptised in the Orthodox Church -- since the Great Schism of 1054 divided Christianity into Eastern and Western branches.
He specifically cited the 1204 sacking of Constantinople by Crusaders, as an act that he said filled today's Catholics with "deep regret."
The declaration followed a roasting by Christodoulos, who told the Pope that an apology was needed for grievances ranging from the Great Schism of 1054 to a lack of publicly expressed concern over the divided island of Cyprus.
"Traumatic experiences remain as open wounds on (the Greek people's) vigorous body," Christodoulos said. "Yet until now, there has not been heard even a single request for pardon."
Christodoulos, who grudgingly accepted the pontiff's visit to Greece after the government invited him, burst into applause at the Pontiff's response and the two men later embraced.
Large-scale opposition to the Papal visit appeared to fade just hours before John Paul II's arrival following pressure from the government and mainstream church leaders who condemned anti-tour demonstrators as members of fringe religious groups.
But some conservative Orthodox believers still released black balloons with signs reading "Pope go home," rang church bells in mourning and lowered flags to half-mast.
Authorities were still taking no chances and more than 5,000 police have been patrolling Athens with demonstrators blocked from coming near the city's Roman Catholic cathedral before the Pope's scheduled appearance.
"The Vatican is the house of deception and criminal activity," shouted a Greek Orthodox cleric, Metropolitan Stephanos, through a bullhorn.
The Pope, who is turning 81 this month, looked frail as he arrived in Athens on Friday morning for the 24-hour visit, descending the steps of his plane slowly but unaided to be greeted by a Greek Air Force honour guard.
Two children from Greece's small Roman Catholic community held a bowl filled with Greek soil for the traditional papal kiss -- a ceremony that was in doubt over worries it could enrage those opposing the visit.
In the last decade John Paul II has worked hard at dialogue with the Orthodox church, 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.
The latest declaration comes amid a continuing effort by John Paul II to begin the millennium with prayers of contrition for wrongs committed by Roman Catholics throughout the ages.
In March 2000 -- on a similar biblical pilgrimage -- the Pope visited Israel's Holocaust memorial to say his church was "deeply saddened" by Christian persecution of Jews.
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.
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