Papal visit creates rifts in Greek Orthodox Church

Posted: Friday, April 06, 2001

ATHENS, Greece (AP) -- High in the thyme-covered hills outside Athens, inside a half-built church, a wooden icon has drawn more than 10,000 Orthodox Christian faithful to see what they consider a miracle.

They believe the Madonna at St. Nektarios church is bleeding from the neck. Since mid-March, pilgrims have crowded into an incense-filled chamber to leave votive offerings and pray for cures.

But for some Orthodox zealots, the stains on the icon mean something else: a lament that Pope John Paul II is planning his first papal visit to Greece.

The scheduled May 4-5 stop in Athens is the first leg of a five-day pilgrimage following the footsteps of the Apostle Paul. The pontiff will then travel to Syria and Malta.

Greece will not be the pope's first visit to an Eastern Orthodox nation. But it is likely to be the most contentious -- and possibly unleash some of the loudest protests in the pope's 23 years of world travels.

''Blood may be spilled because of this visit,'' said the Most Rev. Nektarios Moulatsiotis, who represents a strongly conservative faction within the Orthodox church.

''There will be great fanaticism ... People will take to the streets,'' said Moulatsiotis, who is best known here as the manager of a popular rock group of Orthodox monks.

The outrage toward the pope -- and by extension the entire Roman Catholic Church -- springs from deep within the Greek psyche.

Greek clerics see themselves as the caretakers of the ''true'' Christianity: the various Eastern Orthodox churches that encompass more than 200 million followers worldwide. The Orthodox split with the Vatican more than 1,000 years ago in a dispute over papal authority. The pope is regarded by some Orthodox as the leader of a wayward -- or even heretical -- flock.

''The two-horned, grotesque monster of Rome'' is how the pope was described by Greece's clerical union, which representing parish priests.

And there is even more baggage weighing down Greek perceptions of Roman Catholics.

The Crusaders are blamed for one of most painful moments in Greek history: the sacking in 1204 of Constantinople, the seat of the Orthodox Byzantine empire. The city, now Istanbul, fell to the Muslim Ottoman Empire two centuries later.

In modern times, the Vatican is often accused of trying to extend its influence in the Orthodox heartland through Eastern Rite churches, which follow many Orthodox traditions but are loyal to the pope.

Caught in the middle of the growing storm is the leader of the Greek Orthodox Church, Archbishop Christodoulos.

He and other prominent clerics support the papal visit. But a diverse collection of self-anointed Orthodox protectors -- from black-clad widows to monks who follow the ancient Julian calendar -- vow to mobilize protests and fly black flags at every stop of the pope's visit.

Christodoulos, in fact, helped give the Orthodox fringe unity and credibility last year. He led huge rallies in opposition to the government's plans to strip religious affiliation from identity cards.

Now, the mix of faith and ultra-patriotism he brewed threatens to spill over during the papal visit.

''We are trying to control things. We are telling them to stay calm,'' Christodoulos said. ''This has wider ecclesiastical dimensions. Can you imagine the image of people holding up and waving crosses?''

He said the church's governing body agonized for nearly a year before taking its decision to welcome a pilgrimage by John Paul II.

''We had torturous meetings to decide,'' Christodoulos said. ''We decided we could not say no. A bad image of the church -- that we are fundamentalists, non-Europeans -- would take root.''

But friends and foes alike say that image is already widespread, fueled by Christodoulos in the three years since he became leader of Greece's state religion. More than 90 percent of its 11 million people are baptized into the church. There are only about 50,000 Roman Catholics.

Among the 16 Orthodox churches, the Greek branch had been one of the Vatican's foremost critics.

''Fringe ecclesiastical organizations, with the silent support of a segment of the clergy, are already on a war footing, deeming the papal visit a religious sacrilege,'' columnist Petros Papaconstantinou wrote in the daily Kathimerini. ''Regrettably, Archbishop Christodoulos himself has provided ideological grounds for this religious fanaticism.''

''He's on a tightrope,'' said Metropolitan Chrisostomos of Zakinthos, who supports the papal visit.

Christodoulos has tried to appease critics by saying he will discuss concerns about the Eastern Rite churches with the pope. This could become a central issue during the pope's planned June visit to Ukraine, a predominantly Orthodox country where the Eastern Rite church is well established.

End Adv for PMs newspapers of Friday, April 6

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