Pope issues plea to Greece to grant Catholic minority equal rights

CASTEL GANDOLFO, Italy - Pope John Paul II urged Greece on Monday to improve the rights of Roman Catholics in the country and grant their Church the same legal status afforded the Greek Orthodox Church.

The pope also called for an Olympic truce during the 2004 Olympics in Athens in comments to Greece's new ambassador to the Holy See, Christos Botzios, who presented his credentials to the pope Monday.

On the issue of religious freedom, John Paul suggested the Athens government follow other European Union countries in fully respecting the rights of Catholics.

"They continue to suffer a difficult situation concerning the recognition of their rights in the bosom of the nation and various echelons of society," said the pope, who made a historic visit to the predominantly Orthodox country last year.

Greece's estimated 50,000 Roman Catholics are a minority in the mostly Greek Orthodox country of 11 million, and complain of discrimination.

Although the government recently banned listing religion on national identity cards, the information is required when Greeks register with municipalities or for mandatory army service.

"This can lead to prejudicial treatment," said a spokesman for the Catholic Church in Greece, Nikos Gasparakis.

The Roman Catholic Church is similarly not recognized as a legal entity in Greece and doesn't have the right to buy and sell property or be represented in the court system. The Orthodox Church of Greece, on the other hand, is recognized as a legal entity.

The European Court of Human Rights in December 1997 found Greece at fault for not according legal status to the Roman Catholic Church in Greece.

The pope referred to the legal issue in his comments to the new ambassador.

"I seize this occasion to draw attention to your government of the necessity to give — thanks to a constructive dialogue among those concerned — a legal status to the Catholic Church."

He added that it was "advisable" that the government follow other European countries in according dioceses and local communities "the necessary means for their mission."

The pope has made relations with the Orthodox a priority of his 24-year papacy, and his visit to Athens in May 2001 was a landmark on several levels.

He was the first pope to visit the country in nearly 1,300 years and he took the occasion to issue a sweeping apology for the "sins of action and omission" by Roman Catholics against Orthodox Christians.

Christianity split into the Orthodox and Roman Catholic branches nearly 1,000 years ago over the issue of papal authority. Many Greek Orthodox clerics consider themselves caretakers of the original faith and view the pope as a heretical leader.

The Vatican is often portrayed in Greece as hostile to Orthodox Christians and is blamed for the demise of the Greek Byzantine Empire in the 15th century.

The pope recalled his 2001 visit in his comments, saying that while the visit recalled the "painful memories of the past" it helped both Churches "advance on the path of Christian fraternity and newfound unity."