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Pope clears Bulgaria over shooting

Pope John Paul absolved Bulgaria of any link to a 1981 assassination plot.
Pope John Paul absolved Bulgaria of any link to a 1981 assassination plot.  

SOFIA, Bulgaria -- Pope John Paul has absolved Bulgaria of any link to the assassination attempt on him in 1981, the Vatican has said.

The statement came after the pope met Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov on the second day of his trip to the ex-communist state.

It rebuffs years of speculation that the Balkan state was linked to gunman Mehmet Ali Agca.

Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said: "The Holy Father... literally said, 'I never believed in the so called Bulgarian connection because of my great esteem and respect for the Bulgarian people'."

Agca, a Turk, shot the pope in St. Peter's Square, Rome, Italy, on May 13, 1981.

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It was alleged he was commissioned by the Bulgarian secret service acting on the orders of the Soviet KGB, which feared the Pontiff would stir anti-communist revolt.

An Italian court acquitted three Bulgarians of complicity, citing a lack of evidence.

John Paul II's visit to Bulgaria is the first-ever to the former communist country by a pope.

Foreign Minister Solomon Pasi was quoted by The Associated Press as calling the visit "a blessing," adding: "This visit will wipe out the undeserved taint Bulgaria has carried for the past 20 years."

In a speech on Thursday, the pope said he had "never ceased" to love the Bulgarian people.

The pope visited Sofia's main Orthodox cathedral on Friday and was to meet later with Patriarch Maxim, the leader of Bulgaria's Orthodox Christians.

He is also scheduled to visit an Orthodox monastery near the southern town of Rila and hold an outdoor mass in the southeast in Plovdiv, Bulgaria's second-largest city.

The trip is the pope's latest effort to break down traditional barriers between the world's major religions and focus instead on the common values that bind them.

"With respect I greet His Holiness Patriarch Maxim," the pope said Thursday. "I fervently hope that my visit will serve to increase our knowledge of each other."

Pope John Paul II meets would-be assassin Mehmet Ali Agca in a Rome prison in February 1983
Pope John Paul II meets would-be assassin Mehmet Ali Agca in a Rome prison in February 1983  

For years, Maxim refused to meet the pope, thwarting numerous efforts by the Bulgarian government to organise a visit, which the Vatican said it would consent to only if Orthodox leaders would welcome it. He relented in March.

Maxim attended Thursday's papal welcome ceremony, although he made it clear that he did not want the pope's visit to Sofia's main Orthodox cathedral to coincide with Friday's services there.

The pope also remembered the victims of east Europe's authoritarian regimes.

"Even during the long winter of the totalitarian system, which brought suffering to your country... numberless children of this people remained heroically faithful to Christ, in not a few cases to the point of sacrificing their lives," he said.

The pope will beatify three Roman Catholic priests who were executed in 1952 after being convicted of spying by the then communist regime.


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