In Greece, Pope Francis will Seek to Strengthen Ties with Eastern Churches

In Greece, Pope Francis will Seek to Strengthen Ties with Eastern Churches
In Greece, Pope Francis will Seek to Strengthen Ties with Eastern Churches/courtesy

(AP) ATHENS, Greece — On Saturday, Pope Francis arrived in Athens for the second leg of his five-day visit to Cyprus and Greece, which aims to strengthen recently repaired ties between the Vatican and the Greek Orthodox churches.

Francis will hold meetings to discuss the formation of a new alliance between the eastern and western branches of Christianity to address climate change and other major global issues.

The pope’s visit to the region has also focused on the plight of asylum seekers, as some European countries tighten border controls.

In 2001, Pope John Paul II made the first visit to Greece by a Catholic leader in over 1,200 years. As the Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches try to move away from centuries of competition and mistrust and toward collaboration, Francis has accelerated interfaith initiatives.

In Athens, Francis will meet Archbishop Ieronymos, the head of Greece’s Orthodox Church, as well as Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and President Katerina Sakellaropoulou, the country’s political leadership.

Authorities in central Athens have banned weekend protests and large public gatherings, and up to 4,000 police officers will be on duty for the pope’s visit.

Francis expressed regret for the “centuries of division” between the two churches during his meeting with Orthodox church leaders in Cyprus on Friday.

In October, Francis invited Orthodox Christian and other religious leaders to sign a climate declaration at the Vatican. Greater Vatican-Orthodox cooperation, according to proponents, could help besieged Christian communities in the Middle East and North Africa.

Orthodox Churches are also looking for allies, as they are embroiled in a growing dispute over the independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which has been ruled by the Russian Orthodox Church for centuries.

“I believe that the Pope’s visit to Greece and Cyprus signals a return to the normal relationship that we should have… so that we can move toward what is most important of all: the unity of the Christian world,” said Ioannis Panagiotopoulos, an associate professor of divinity and church history at Athens University.

“As a result, this trip is extremely significant, as it allows us to have a genuine discussion about major issues such as migration.”

Francis will meet with members of Greece’s small Catholic community and will return to Lesbos, an Aegean Sea island, on Sunday, where he met with migrants at a detention camp five years ago. On the papal plane, he brought a dozen with him. The pope’s visit will come to an end on Monday.

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