ATHENS, Greece — On May 4 and 5 Pope John Paul II will visit Athens as part of a Biblical pilgrimage following the footsteps of the Apostle Paul, a Vatican official said Tuesday.
The visit by the 80-year-old pontiff is seen as a significant step forward in a broader effort to reconcile the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches.
Archbishop Leonardo Sandri announced the pope’s visit after meeting with Archbishop Christodoulos, the leader of the Greek Orthodox Church.
It was the first visit to Athens by a senior Vatican official after the Holy Synod, the governing body of the Greek church, in early March lifted its objections to a papal visit.
Attempts to heal a 1,000 year estrangement between Roman Catholics and the Orthodox are commonly viewed with hostility by the Greek clergy, who accuse the Vatican of trying to extend its influence eastward.
Christodoulos has come under pressure from priests, monks, nuns, and church groups to revoke the Holy Synod decision. More than 97 percent of the native-born population is baptized into the Greek Orthodox Church, the official state religion.
The government has been urged to take steps to ensure the pope’s security and prevent thousands of Orthodox zealots from holding mass protests in the capital.
The pope will visit Greece as part of a planned trip to Syria and Malta.