PLOVDIV, Bulgaria, MAY 26, 2002 ( John Paul II´s visit to this republic culminated with his beatification of three Bulgarian martyrs who were executed by the Communists in 1952.

The setting for the ceremony today was Alexander Battenberg Square, in the heart of Plovdiv, the Bulgarian city with the greatest number of Catholics. Some 25,000 people, including Orthodox and Muslims, attended the beatification Mass.

Especially significant was the presence of Orthodox Metropolitan Arsenij of Plovdiv, who welcomed the Pope with words about "the union of the Churches in Christ."

The altar was near a building that was once the headquarters of the city´s Communist Party.

The three new blessed, all Augustinian religious of the Assumption, are Kamen Vitchev (born 1893), Pavel Djidjov (born 1919) and Josaphat Chichkov (born 1884).

The three were shot in Sofia´s prison on the night of Nov. 11-12, 1952, after being accused of spying for "the Pope´s secret services and imperialism." Bishop Eugenji Bossilkov, a Passionist beatified in 1988, was martyred at the same time.

The Assumptionists, a congregation founded by Father Emmanuel d´Alzon in France in 1845, arrived in Bulgaria in 1863 at the request of Pius IX, to promote relations with the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. Bulgaria was then still under Turkish occupation.

In his homily, delivered in Bulgarian and read in part by a priest, John Paul II emphasized the ecumenical character of the martyrs of Bulgarian Christianity.

"I also feel in duty bound to honor the memory of the other confessors of the faith who were sons and daughters of the Orthodox Church and who suffered martyrdom under the same Communist regime," the Pope said.

"This tribute of fidelity to Christ brought together the two ecclesial communities in Bulgaria, even to the supreme witness," John Paul II continued.

"This gesture cannot fail to have an ecumenical character and significance. Perhaps the most convincing form of ecumenism is the ecumenism of the saints and of the martyrs," the Pontiff stressed.

The participants, including some Orthodox, responded by crying out "Holy Father, we are with you!" and "Holy Virgin, thank you for our Pope!"

After lunching with Bulgaria´s Catholic bishops, John Paul II met with the youth, "the future of Bulgaria," in Plovdiv´s cathedral, dedicated to St. Louis of the French. The church was filled to capacity.

The Holy Father´s 96th international trip came to an end with his farewell to Bulgaria at the Plovdiv airport.