WARSAW, Poland—Romania's Orthodox Church has said it will invite the Pope to visit the country, making it the first predominantly Orthodox state to host a papal pilgrimage.

However, an Orthodox spokesman warned that the unprecedented visit should help resolve disputes with minority Catholics, currently estimated at 9.5% of the population.

In a statement, the Orthodox governing synod said it had decided to follow up a government invitation issued by Premier Radu Vasile during a July 7 Vatican audience, by asking John Paul II to visit Romania in May 1999.

A spokesman for Patriarch Teoctist said itinerary details would be discussed when Orthodox and Vatican delegates meet Aug. 30 at an ecumenical symposium in Bucharest.

Orthodox Church leaders had previously ruled out a papal visit until disputes are settled with Romania's 700,000-member Greek Catholic minority, whose five dioceses and 1,188 parishes are loyal to Rome while preserving the Eastern rite.

Despite being re-legalized in 1990, Greek Catholics have regained fewer than 100 of their 2,000 pre-war buildings, which were placed in Orthodox hands when their Church was outlawed by the communist regime in 1948.

Catholic ties with the Orthodox Church, which claims the spiritual loyalty of 87% of Romania's 23 million citizens, deteriorated after a bill ordering the partial return of churches to Greek Catholics was accepted by the country's Senate in June 1997.

In March, violent clashes erupted when Greek Catholics attempted to reclaim Cluj's Transfiguration cathedral in compliance with a court order.

In a May-June exchange of letters with the Greek Catholic Church's leader, Metropolitan Lucjan Muresan, Patriarch Teoctist agreed that a Catholic-Orthodox commission would begin discussing property disputes with a Vatican observer in September.

President Emil Constantinescu, a practicing Orthodox Christian, is sponsoring the two-day Bucharest ecumenical symposium, which is to be attended by seven Catholic cardinals, including Achille Silvestrini and Roger Etchegaray, as well as by six Orthodox patriarchs and a delegation from the Moscow Patriarchate.

Premier Vasile's invitation is the Pope's second from Romania in 1998, following an earlier Vatican visit by Foreign Minister Adrian Severin in April.

However, an Orthodox Synod member, Bishop Nifon Mihaita, stressed that the pilgrimage should follow a “brotherly dialogue” between Churches, and point to the solution of disputes in a “Christian, civilized and law-abiding spirit.”

“In principle, the Romanian Orthodox Church has nothing against a visit by the head of the Roman Catholic Church,” Bishop Mihaita added, in a statement reported by Romania's independent Religious Life bulletin.

“But a visit of such importance must be very well prepared, since we want everyone to enjoy it — the Orthodox majority and Catholic minority.”

Another leading Church member, Liviu Soinea, from Bucharest's Orthodox Theology Institute, cautioned the Libertatea daily that a papal visit to Romania's partly Catholic-inhabited Transylvania region would be “considered a threat by Orthodox faithful.”

However, a Synod spokesman, Tudor Anghel, dismissed claims that his Church could reconsider its invitation as “speculation.”

John Paul II, who is also making an eighth eight-city tour of his native Poland in mid-1999, holds state invitations from predominantly Orthodox Bulgaria and Georgia.

However, local Orthodox hierarchies have consistently opposed plans for a papal visit, pending a solution of Catholic-Orthodox disputes. Vatican officials have stressed that the Pope will not visit countries unless invited by the predominant Church.

(Jonathan Luxmoore)