BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) -- President Ion Iliescu said Monday the state cannot force restitution of Eastern Rite Catholic churches seized by the communist regime and given to Romania's Orthodox Church.
Iliescu was responding to a June 1 request from Pope John Paul II.
In 1948, communist authorities banned the Eastern Rite and seized nearly 2,500 local churches because of believers' loyalty to the pope. The ban was lifted when communism fell in 1989, but only about 120 churches have been returned.
Iliescu said the state cannot interfere in such church affairs and only local worshippers can determine ownership.
Nearly 90 percent of Romania's 23 million people are Orthodox, while Eastern Rite Catholics have shrunk to about 1 percent.
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