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Friday, 24 May, 2002, 15:45 GMT 16:45 UK
Pope moves to heal Bulgaria wounds
Pope John Paul II (right) in Sofia's cathedral of St Alexander Nevsky
Orthodox Bulgarians will now have the use of a church in Rome
Pope John Paul II has moved to allay suspicions about the 1981 attempt on his life, saying in Sofia that he had never believed there was a Bulgarian plot behind it.

Correspondents say the Bulgarian Government had been hoping that the Pope's four-day visit would finally put the allegations to rest.


I never believed in the so-called Bulgarian connection and this is because of my affection and my respect for the Bulgarian people

Pope John Paul II

The Roman Catholic pontiff also paid homage to Bulgaria's 1,100-year-old Orthodox Christian culture.

Suspicions have continued to linger about the shooting despite the fact that an Italian court acquitted three Bulgarians for lack of evidence.

"I never believed in the so-called Bulgarian connection and this is because of my affection and my respect for the Bulgarian people," the pontiff told Bulgarian President Georgy Parvanov.

Bulgarian Foreign Minister Solomon Passy welcomed the statement, saying his country had been fighting to clear its name for 20 years.

Mehmet Ali Agca, the Turkish right-wing extremist jailed for life for the shooting, once alleged he had been acting on behalf of the Bulgarian secret service and its masters in the Soviet KGB.

Olive branch

The pontiff also prayed in Sofia's Orthodox Cathedral of St Alexander Nevsky and had a breakthrough meeting with the head of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church.

With Orthodox Churches fearing that the Vatican is trying to encroach upon their flocks, Patriarch Maxim had until recently refused to meet Pope John Paul.


Christ our Lord founded a single Church, while we today appear to the world divided

Pope John Paul II

On Friday, he entertained the pontiff at his palace, offering him the traditional greeting of nuts, coffee, water and rakia, or plum brandy.

The ailing 82-year-old politely declined to taste the rakia but was given a bottle to take back to Rome with him.

"Christ our Lord founded a single Church, while we today appear to the world divided," he told Patriarch Maxim.

He said he hoped his visit would help the Roman and Orthodox Churches, which parted ways in 1054, to get to know each other better.

In a gesture of reconciliation, the Pope also announced that the Bulgarian Orthodox community in Rome could henceforth make use of a Catholic church, Saints Vincent and Anastasius.

On Sunday, he plans to beatify three Roman Catholic priests who were executed for spying by the Bulgarian Communist authorities in 1952.

The Catholic community in Bulgaria numbers just 60,000, or 0.75% of the population.

Health concerns

The hectic schedule of the current papal tour has increased concerns for the Pope's health.

Pope John Paul II at Baku airport
The pope has been using a special trolley
In Azerbaijan he was unable to walk more than a few steps at a time and had to be moved around on a trolley when he was not being driven in a car or in the famous Popemobile.

He again had to be lowered on a hydraulic lift to disembark from his plane after the flight from Baku to Sofia.

Most of his speech in Baku, where he led a mass in a sports hall, was read for him by an aide.

However, he has appeared relatively alert during his public appearances in Bulgaria.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's David Willey
"Pope John Paul's the first bishop of Rome ever to visit Bulgaria"
See also:

20 May 02 | Europe
14 Jun 00 | From Our Own Correspondent
18 May 02 | Europe
16 May 02 | Europe
16 May 02 | Europe
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