ATHENS, Greece — Pope John Paul II arrived in Greece on Friday for a personal pilgrimage with much wider implications: trying to heal nearly 1,000 years of discord between the Vatican and Orthodox churches.
John Paul is the first pope to visit Greece in nearly 13 centuries.
His six-day trip – his first international voyage in a year – retraces the biblical journeys of the Apostle Paul through Greece, Syria and Malta.
The pope, walking slowly off the plane, was saluted by an Air Force honor guard. No senior members of the Greek Orthodox Church turned out to welcome him – underscoring the delicate and potentially tumultuous nature of the pope’s visit.
The pope hopes help close the deep estrangement between the Vatican and Orthodox churches. Christianity split into the two branches nearly 1,000 years ago in disputes over papal authority.
The effort for greater contacts would receive a major boost if supported by the Greek Orthodox, one of the pillars of faith for the world’s more than 200 million Orthodox.
The leader of the Greek Orthodox Church, Archbishop Christodoulos, is expected to make a public statement demanding a formal papal apology for the Crusades that led to the fall of the Greek Byzantine Empire and other perceived misdeeds against the Orthodox Church. Such a statement by the pope could help open an important ecumenical dialogue.
But the Greek Orthodox Church also represent a hotbed of dissent.
Its clergymen and followers have long looked upon the Vatican with suspicion that has often spilled into open hostility.
The ill feelings draw from potent sources: religion, ethnic pride and a perception of historical injustice.
“It is blasphemy to the memory of our saints to allow the pope in Greece,” said Athens University theologian Giorgos Metalinos at an anti-pope gathering Wednesday of more than 1,000 people.
Protesters – from monks to parish priests – plan more rallies during the pope’s 24-hour stay. They promise to drape monasteries in black and ring church bells in a symbol of mourning. At some churches, Greek and ancient Byzantine flags were lowered to half-staff.
Some zealots have threatened to block the papal motorcade from reaching Areopagus hill, the judicial center of ancient Athens where Paul made his sermons in A.D. 51.
But the opposition appeared to fizzle just hours before the pope’s arrival.
Some former protest leaders appealed for calm – apparently bowing to pressure from the government and mainstream church leaders.
Security forces were taking no chances, setting up roadblocks and dispatching more then 5,000 police officers across the city.
The demonstrators represent the Greek government’s worse fears: that they will steal attention from the pope and show the world that prosperity and modernization has not fully erased the nation’s anti-Western outlook.
“These fringe groups are not the voice of Greece,” insisted Foreign Ministry spokesman Panos Beglitis.
And at the Greek parliament, the flag of the Holy See waved alongside the Greek flag.
Still, most Greeks are raised to be wary of Roman Catholics. More than 95 percent of Greece’s 11 million people
are baptized into the
School books blame the Crusaders for the fall of the Greek Byzantine Empire in the 15th century – the prelude for what Greeks consider their ultimate humiliation: nearly 400 years of domination under the Muslim Ottoman Empire.
But that was better than bowing to the Roman Catholic West, most Greeks are taught, and everyone knows the anti-Vatican adage: “Better the Turkish turban than the papal tiara.”
The pope has been to mostly Orthodox countries before: Romania and Georgia.
But the Greek backlash is more intense. Greek Orthodox clerics portray themselves as guardians of both the nation’s ethnic identity and the original spirit of Christianity.
Many still believe the Vatican seeks to infiltrate the Orthodox heartland, stretching from the Balkans to Russia.
They particularly condemn Eastern Rite churches, which follow many Orthodox traditions but are loyal to the Vatican. An influential Eastern Rite cleric, Cardinal Ignace Moussa Daoud, was dropped from the papal delegation after objections from Greek Orthodox leaders.
The Vatican, in turn, has spoken about alleged discrimination against Greece’s 50,000 native-born Roman Catholics.
There are also about 150,000 Catholic immigrants.