By Deborah Kyvrikosaios
ATHENS (Reuters) – Roman Catholics in predominantly Orthodox Greece are enthusiastically preparing for a visit from Pope Francis who they hope will help bring Eastern and Western Christianity closer together.
François will visit Greece from December 4 to 6 after a two-day trip to Cyprus.
“The fact that he himself comes to Greece when it is mainly an Orthodox country is something very important to us and we look forward to it,” said Mary Katherine Binibini, 24, member of the ‘a group of young Catholics. Although she was born in Greece, her family is originally from the Philippines.
There are only around 50,000 Greek Catholics out of a total population of around 11 million, but foreigners, including, in recent years, asylum seekers, have increased this figure to around 150,000.
“The Catholic community awaits this visit in a festive atmosphere,” Theodoros Kontidis, Catholic Archbishop of Athens, told Reuters.
“Greece and Cyprus are a point of contact with Orthodoxy. Relations with the Orthodox Church are important and must be maintained and developed, ”Kontidis said.
“They have a lot in common, so collaboration and communication between the two Churches in the modern world, whatever issues Christianity faces, is important,” he added.
‘BROTHER IN FAITH’
Christianity split into Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches in 1054 in what is known as the Great Schism, and for centuries relations have been difficult.
In an attempt to bridge the gap, in 2001, John Paul II became the first pope to visit Greece. His appeal at the time for forgiveness for historic wrongs committed by Catholics against Orthodox Christians helped thaw relations.
In a video message broadcast before his trip to Greece and Cyprus, Francis said: “As a brother in the faith, I will have the grace to be received by you and to meet you in the name of the Lord of peace.
This will be François’ second trip to Greece. In 2016, he visited a refugee camp on the island of Lesvos and prayed with Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual leader of the 250 million Orthodox Christians around the world, and Ieronymos, Archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Church. He will find the latter during this trip.
Francis will also visit a refugee reception center in Lesvos again, which was on the front line of a massive influx of migrants to Europe in 2015.
“He has shown sensitivity to the (refugee) problem… He might want to show that this is a still living problem,” Kontidis said.
The Pope will also meet the Greek President and Prime Minister in Athens as well as young people from a Catholic school. A big mass is scheduled for Sunday at the Megaro Mousikis, a concert hall in the Greek capital.
(Edited by Gareth Jones)