ROME, MAY 21, 2002 ( Holy Father´s visit to Bulgaria will culminate with the beatification of three Bulgarian religious, martyred under the Communist dictatorship in 1952.

On Sunday, May 26, in the town of Plovdiv, the Pope will beatify the three religious of the Augustinians of the Assumption, known as the Assumptionists. The first, Kamen Vitchev (1893-1952) belonged to the Eastern rite; the second and third, Pavel Djidjov (1919-1952) and Josaphat Chichkov (1884-1952), were of the Latin rite.

Founded 150 years ago, this religious family has remained intensely committed to rapprochement with the Christian East. They will become the first Blessed of that Congregation.

This will be the second time that John Paul II will beatify martyrs under Communism outside of Rome, in a country of Orthodox tradition. The first time was during his trip to the Ukraine last year in June.

The three Assumptionists were shot on November 11, 1952 at 11:30 p.m. inside Sofia´s central prison, along with Bishop Eugene Bossilkov of Nicopoli, beatified in 1998.

After the process of beatification, the Bishop and the three religious were recognized as martyrs, killed "out of hatred for the faith." They endured maltreatment and torture until sentenced to death on October 3 as "spies of the Vatican" and "lackeys of imperialism." Their bodies were never found.

The trial of 40 Bulgarian Catholic priests, religious, and laymen, including theses four martyrs, began on September 29, 1952 in Bulgaria´s Supreme Court, in Sofia.

The prisoners were abused and tortured, the recipients of an "act of accusation against the Catholic Organization of Conspiracy and Espionage in Bulgaria." The allegation accused them of being "organized and directed ever since September 9, 1944; an organization whose objective was to invert, undermine, and weaken the popular democratic power through a coup d´Etat, insurrection, revolts, terrorist acts, crimes, and foreign armed interventions."

They were also declared "members of an espionage and conspiracy organization, in several of the country´s cities, preparing an imperialist war against the USSR, Bulgaria, and other countries of popular democracy."

The sentence, announced on October 3, 1952, eve of the opening of the 19th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party in Moscow, declared the three Assumptionist religious "guilty of having organized and directed in Bulgaria, since September 9, 1944 until the summer of 1952, a clandestine organization, a secret service agency of the Pope and of imperialists," and condemned them "to death by a firing squad with privation of their rights, confiscating all their properties in benefit of the State."

Ecumenical Vocation

The Assumptionists were founded in 1850 by Emmanuel d´Alzon (1810-1880), Vicar General of the diocese of Nimes, and director of the College of the Assumption -- hence, the name of the Congregation.

With the motto "Thy Kingdom Come," the founder designed a doctrinal (with education as a priority), social (stressing solidarity), and ecumenical plan that seeks Christian unity.

There are at least 950 Assumptionists present today in 30 countries worldwide, most especially in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Madagascar, Kenya, Korea, and Vietnam.

Called after a meeting with Pius IX to work for the restoration of unity with the Orthodox Church, in 1865 Emmanuel d´Alzon founded the women´s Congregation of the Oblates of the Assumption, closely united to the ecumenical mission of the Assumptionists in the East, whose first community was established in Andrinopole, then in Bulgaria, and now known as Edirne, located in Turkey.

Faithful to their charism of "daughters of the Church," and "workers of unity," the Oblates of the Assumption are present in 20 countries of Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America.