NEWS STORY: Pope, patriarch urge Kosovo talks, religious reconciliation

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c. 1999 Religion News Service

BUCHAREST, Romania _ Pope John Paul II and Patriarch Teoctist, spiritual leader of the Romanian Orthodox Church, issued a rare and dramatic joint appeal Saturday (May 8) calling on the warring parties in Yugoslavia to stop fighting and start talking.”In the name of God, we call on all who, in one manner or another, are responsible for the tragedy to finally have the courage to resume dialogue and find the conditions to make a just peace,”the two said.

The appeal came just hours after NATO forces launched one of the biggest attacks on Belgrade since the war began on March 24, including what NATO called a mistaken attack on the Chinese embassy in the Yugoslav capital. The statement by the two religious leaders did not mention the attack, in which four people were killed, according to early reports.

The joint statement highlighted the second day of John Paul’s historic visit here, the first-ever trip by a Roman Catholic pontiff to a predominately Orthodox land since the 11th-century split of Eastern and Western Christianity.

John Paul also met with Orthodox leaders, calling for a spirit of brotherly love between them and renewed efforts to end the millennium-long breach that has seen its own share of violent conflict.

And the pontiff saluted the small Greek Catholic Church, which follows Orthodox liturgy but is loyal to the Vatican, commending it for enduring the heaviest persecution of any church under Romania’s former communist regime.

The statement on Yugoslavia came despite the two churches’ differences over the war. Both have consistently called for negotiations over conflict, but the Vatican has stressed _ and sharply condemned _ the ethnic cleansing of Albanian Kosovars by Serb forces, while the Romanian church has expressed sympathy for the Orthodox Serbs _ their Balkan neighbors to the east _ and supported their claim to sovereignty over Kosovo.

John Paul and Teoctist refrained from naming any participants in the conflict, but they expressed their”solidarity with all those chased from their homes and separated from their loved ones”as well as”the victims of the deadly bombardments.” Crowds of both Catholics and Orthodox lined Bucharest’s boulevards for a second day, waiting patiently in the balmy spring weather to cheer the pope as he traveled to events in the glass-enclosed popemobile.

The pope attended a Greek Catholic liturgy in the morning at the city’s small Roman Catholic cathedral. The gesture seemed to cheer members of his flock who were disappointed he was only visiting Bucharest and not regions of Romania where most of the Catholic minority lives. About 2,000 worshippers crowded into the church while thousands more listened patiently to the service on loud speaker, many of them Catholics who traveled in from throughout Romania.

More than 1 million Roman Catholics and hundreds of thousands of Greek Catholics live in Romania. The latter church, based mainly in Transylvania to the northwest, was banned during the four decades of communist rule following World War II. The pope recalled the”unimaginable suffering”of the church, 12 of whose bishops were executed or died of mistreatment. Other priests and monks were also persecuted, and believers were forced to choose another church _ usually the Orthodox Church _ or meet in secret.”The chains of your faithful are the glory and pride of the church,”he said.”The truth has set you free,”said the pope, who began the day with visits to the graves of Greek Catholic clerics and of demonstrators slain in the violent 1989 overthrow of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.

Upon entering the cathedral, the pope gave a poignant greeting to the ailing Cardinal Alexandru Todea, the symbol of Greek Catholic resilience. Todea, who suffered more than 40 years of detention by the communists, sat in his wheelchair at the front of the church, where the pope kissed his forehead and gave him a blessing. Todea then took the pope’s hand and kissed his ring.

Greek Catholics are fighting to recover more than 2,000 churches that landed in Orthodox hands after the Communist Party government banned them. As in other former communist lands, Orthodox churches are suspicious of Eastern-rite churches, which they view as Vatican encroachment on their traditional territories.

The pope urged both churches to”heal the wounds of the past with love.” In addition to the disputes over property that have marred Orthodox-Catholic relations in the former Soviet-dominated Europe, theological and doctrinal matters over papal primacy and the proper wording and meaning of the Nicene Creed _ a central Christian affirmation of faith _ have divided the two churches.

At a meeting with the Romanian Orthodox hierarchy at the ornate Patriarchal Palace, John Paul II heard Teoctist say the churches are moving closer together due to a common effort”to return to the source, to the practice of the church in the first millennium.”This is the common point of reference which has radically changed the perspectives and attitudes in the relations of Roman Catholic Christianity and Orthodox Christianity,”the patriarch said.

The pope’s speech centered on biblical appeals to love, and, with the Kosovo conflict providing an unspoken backdrop, he proclaimed Christian unity as crucial to making wider peace in the world.”Where are the churches when dialogue falls silent and weapons proclaim the language of death?”he asked.

Many on the streets of Bucharest were occupied with similar thoughts.

Gheorghe Nitulescu, 48, an Orthodox from Bucharest who came out to see the pope’s motorcade, said the most important fruit of his visit to this Balkan land would be”peace in Yugoslavia.” But he added that any calls to peace need to reach the right audience to succeed:”If (Yugoslavian President Slobodan) Milosevic can understand, then yes. Otherwise, no.” Onlookers were more optimistic about religious reconciliation.

Economist Gabriela Gavrilescu, 32, a Catholic from Bucharest, said the visit has already broken down some religious intolerance, particularly among older Orthodox.”They are really beginning to change their feelings and opinions,”said Gavrilescu, who came out to see the pope with her Orthodox husband and their toddler.

Bogdan Dunca, 21, a Greek Catholic seminarian who traveled 350 miles with his classmates to Bucharest, said reconciliation wasn’t only a job for popes and patriarchs.”This places a big responsibility on us,”he said.


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