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Last Updated: Sunday, 14 September, 2003, 18:04 GMT 19:04 UK
Ailing Pope ends Slovak visit
Pope John Paul II
Concerns over the Pope's health dominated his trip
Pope John Paul has arrived back in Rome after a four day visit to Slovakia, which has raised fresh concerns about his health.

The pontiff finished his trip with a Mass and beatification ceremony for a bishop and nun who were persecuted under the former Communist government.

More than 100,000 people gathered for the Mass in the heart of a sprawling Communist-era housing complex in the capital, Bratislava.

The Pope - who has been in poor health for some years - conducted the entire three-hour service but a BBC correspondent in Bratislava says he was clearly in pain and at times had difficulty speaking.

Following the service, he was seen off at Bratislava airport by 3,000 supporters waving white and yellow Vatican flags.

The beatification ceremony - the first stage in the process of creating a new saint - conferred the status of Blessed on the bishop, Vasil Hopko, and the nun, Zdenka Schelingova, who were tortured and imprisoned in the 1950s.

The Pope, 83, praised the pair as "radiant examples of faithfulness in times of harsh and ruthless religious persecution".

The pope's coming here is a wonderful thing. And great spiritual encouragement for the Slovak nation.
Eduard Brigand
An exuberant crowd turned out for the ceremony, some waving flags from countries as far away as Canada and Argentina. Nuns in black and priests in white and red vestments made a splash of colour in front of the high-rise apartment blocks.

The BBC's David Willey, in Bratislava, says the venue of the mass was a powerful symbol of the past.

The Roman Catholic Church was suppressed in Slovakia for more than two decades. Priests were beaten up during communist times or forced to do menial work and church property was confiscated.

A futuristic brand new church built since Slovakia became independent rose up at the side of the temporary altar erected for the Pope's Mass.

Slowing speech

Although this was the last of the Pope's four foreign visits this year, and his 102nd in total, the future of Papal travel remains in doubt after the evident deterioration in the Pope's health seen here in Slovakia, our correspondent says.

The pontiff's speech has become extremely slow and slurred, the result of Parkinson's disease. During this trip his aides have had to take over much of his addresses.

But the Vatican refuses to exclude the possibility of further short trips within Europe from Rome next year.

"The pope's coming here is a wonderful thing. And great spiritual encouragement for the Slovak nation. It is a great gift for our nation for him to make the sacrifice of coming here when his health is so bad," said Eduard Brigand.

"We've never had a pope like him before," said Sofia Hornakova, 66, as she listened to the mass.

Resurging faith

The Catholic Church - suppressed for two decades in what was Czechoslovakia - has no trouble attracting followers today.

New religious schools are opening and an ongoing row within the government about abortion shows the church is also a political force to be reckoned with.

A census in 2001 reportedly showed 84% of Slovakia's 5.4 million people saying they believe in God, up 11% from a decade earlier.

Nearly 70% declared themselves Roman Catholic.




WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Brian Barron
"The most worrying development for the Vatican is the Pope's occasional failure to communicate"



SEE ALSO:
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13 Sep 03  |  Europe
'Stronger' pope stirs Slovaks
12 Sep 03  |  Europe
Pope presses EU on constitution
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Pope on second Balkan visit
21 Jun 03  |  Europe
Pope receives fruit treatment
02 Sep 02  |  Health
Profile: Pope John Paul II
22 Apr 02  |  Europe


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