Greeks Divided Over Papal Visit

Government and Progressive Press Are in Favor

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ATHENS, Greece, MAR. 26, 2001 ( Greece and the local Orthodox Church are divided over the Pope´s forthcoming trip to Athens.

The government, progressive press and a good part of public opinion are favorable to the pilgrimage, but the more conservative sectors of the Greek clergy and of the faithful are strongly opposed.

Respected newspapers, such as To Vima and Kathimerini, have editorialized that the event could give the Orthodox Church the opportunity to show its true nature; a nature that is tolerant and welcoming, as well as open to the ecumenical dialogue, while continuing to keep its “distance” from Rome.

Some commentators in these newspapers have noted the unease among some clergy who consider John Paul II´s trip as a “maneuver” on the part of Vatican diplomacy to come closer to Russia and its patriarch, Alexis II.

The popular press encourages the debate, accentuating past and present divisions, and reporting on alleged terrible presages, such as an icon that supposedly appeared full of blood in a church on the outskirts of Athens.

During a visit Sunday to a church in the Greek capital, Archbishop Christodoulos of Athens, known up until now as a “hawk” rather than a “dove,” had to placate spirits. He called for calm during the papal visit, and said that the Pope “is not the real enemy; increasingly widespread indifference to faith and religion is.”

In recent weeks the archbishop has tried to put out other fires, beginning with his audiences with monks, especially those of Mount Athos, who came to discuss the reasons for their opposition, and ending with the harsh attacks of Father Eustachios Kolas, president of the Union of Greek Clergy, and the criticisms of Father Theodoros Zisis, well-known professor of theology in Salonica.

Archbishop Christodoulos is well aware that, beyond the ecumenical meaning of the trip, what is a stake is the image of the Greek Orthodox Church and its relations with the state, which invited the Pope in the first place.

Greek President Kostis Stephanopoulos and Prime Minister Konstandinos Simitis have always favored the papal pilgrimage in St. Paul´s footsteps.

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