VATICAN CITY, May 3 – Pope Francis begins a Balkan visit on Sunday in Bulgaria, a country with a tiny Catholic community where the Orthodox Church has rejected the idea of holding joint prayers with the pontiff.
Highlights of the three-day tour that also takes in North Macedonia include a visit to a refugee camp on the outskirts of Sofia and a commemoration of Mother Teresa, the most famous native of the Macedonian capital Skopje.
Francis, whose papacy has been marred by a wave of child sex abuse allegations against clergy, has made improving interfaith dialogue a priority.
In March, he addressed thousands at a mosque in Morocco; in February he made the first ever-visit by a pontiff to the Arabian Peninsula — the birthplace of Islam.
But last month the Bulgarian Orthodox Church’s Holy Synod rejected the prospect of Orthodox priests participating in a joint “prayer for peace” with the pope in a Sofia square which had been planned for Monday.
The prayer was to have been the sort of interfaith event that Francis has consistently tried to promote.
The plan, however, was later downgraded to a simple “meeting” by the Vatican.
So while the visit will be a particular highlight for the tiny Catholic communities in both countries — 44,000 in Bulgaria (0.6 percent of the population) and 20,000 in North Macedonia (0.4 percent) — it is the interaction with the countries’ two Orthodox churches that will be most keenly watched.
The Bulgarian church also made clear its opposition to any religious service when the pope visits Sofia’s St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral on Sunday.
Indeed, Bulgaria is the only Orthodox church not to participate in a commission fostering dialogue with the Roman Catholic church.
“The Synod will welcome the pope in his capacity as head of state, since it only accepts use of the term “church” for other Orthodox Christians,” said Tony Nikolov of the Bulgarian journal Christianity and Culture.
– Bitter divisions –
Forty-five years of state-backed atheism under communism left the Bulgarian church somewhat withdrawn, and its stance hardened after an internal split that was only resolved in 2001.
Some still see the Catholic church as the modern day embodiment of dangerous proselytisers of centuries past.
Meanwhile relations between Rome and other Orthodox churches have been warming, with February 2016 seeing the historic meeting between Francis and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill in Cuba.
That was the first such encounter since the schism nearly 1,000 years ago that tore Christianity in two.
The meeting was sharply criticised by conservative Russian nationalists — the same tendency that has acted as a brake on any moves by Bulgaria’s Patriarch Neophyte towards greater openness.
The Catholic Church has been trying to foster a rapprochement with Orthodoxy in the five decades since its seminal Second Vatican Council — a blink of an eye when set against the two thousand years of sometimes bloody and bitter divisions.
– ‘Joy and gratitude’ –
Even before his election to the papacy, Francis had promoted his view that the Catholic Church should go to the “peripheries” to gain fresh perspective.
True to this watchword, his first two trips in Europe were to two Muslim-majority countries: Albania in 2014 and Bosnia-Herzegovina in 2015.
His visit to Bulgaria and North Macedonia comes after the heads of state of both countries extended an invitation to him after a traditional annual visit to the tomb of St Cyril in Rome.
Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov has welcomed Francis’ visit, saying it “reflects his interest in the peaceful economic development of the Balkans”.
The pro-Western prime minister in North Macedonia, Zoran Zaev, said the first ever papal visit to this country was a cause for “great joy and gratitude”.
The tour comes as the country of some two million inhabitants hopes to start accession talks with the EU after finally settling the 27-year-long dispute with neighbouring Greece over its name.
But his visit to a refugee camp on Monday may well prove controversial with the Bulgarian public and the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, which have both been hostile to the welcoming attitude to refugees advocated by Pope Francis.
Currently Bulgaria’s migrant reception centres have an occupancy rate of only 10 percent, while the entire 274km-long Bulgarian-Turkish border is equipped with a barbed-wire fence.