ATHENS, Greece—The likelihood of a visit by Pope John Paul II to Greece during the Great Jubilee year 2000 has been greatly diminished by the lack of a welcome from the Greek Orthodox Church.

“Pope John Paul II must apologize for centuries of perceived Roman Catholic misdeeds against Christian Orthodox to receive a religious welcome in Greece,” the Holy Synod of the Greek Orthodox Church ruled Sept. 6.

The ruling by the leaders came one day after Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitis announced that the Pope was welcome to visit Greece.

The synod's statement is not binding on the government, but it opens rifts that could embarrass political leaders and encourage anti-papal demonstrations if the trip occurs as proposed to coincide with the millennium.

As a matter of policy, the Holy Father will not visit a majority Orthodox country without an invitation from the Orthodox hierarchy.

The decision by the Greek Church is also a blow to efforts by the Pope and some Orthodox leaders to draw the two churches closer together after a nearly 1,000-year separation. The schism, which began with disputes over papal authority, has been complicated by deep-rooted Orthodox suspicions that the Vatican is trying to extend its influence eastward.

“Tendencies of expansionism, to proselytize and undermine the Orthodox churches … are indicative of the problems that prevent the creation of the right atmosphere for a possible Papal visit,” the Holy Synod said in its statement.

A spokesman for the synod, Metropolitan Kallinkos, said no official request has been made for a papal stop in Greece. But he clearly set the preconditions: a sign of “humility and repentance” by the Pope for what some Orthodox clerics consider a long history of Vatican-sponsored aggression and arrogance, especially the Crusaders' sack of Constantinople in 1204.

More recently, the Orthodox Church has complained bitterly about alleged Catholic expansionism. The main target of Orthodox fears is the Eastern Rite churches, which follow Orthodox traditions, liturgy and architecture while professing loyalty to the Pope. “They are the Trojan Horse of the Catholic Church,” said Metropolitan Kallinkos, following a lengthy debate by the Church leaders.

Mistrust of the Vatican is particularly strong in Greece, where more than 97% of the population is baptized into a Church whose leaders consider themselves guardians of Orthodox dogma and the Greek identity. “Out with the Pope,” read a banner headline in The Orthodox Press, a religious weekly newspaper that reflects the views of the Church leadership.

A Vatican official who recently met with Orthodox leaders in Greece agreed that talk of a papal visit to Greece is premature.

Cardinal Edward I. Cassidy, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, said Sept. 7 that “where Greece is concerned, all that has happened so far is that the Holy Father has expressed a strong desire to visit certain places there, as well as other holy sites connected with the travels of the Apostle St. Paul.”

Cardinal Cassidy stayed in Greece Sept. 4–6 for an Orthodox-Catholic symposium. While in the country, he said, he had “a very warm and friendly” lunch meeting with Bishop Nikolaos Foscolos of Athens.

The cardinal said he was aware that Orthodox leaders had agreed that Pope John Paul II must apologize for Catholic Church members' historical actions in their country before they would cooperate a papal visit.

“There has been a lot of comment in the [Greek] press about all kinds of things,” Cardinal Cassidy added. “But it is all very premature, until the Holy Father himself is able to take time to reflect on, and to plan, a visit.”

The Sept. 4–9 symposium Cardinal Cassidy attended in Thessaloniki, Greece, concerned values common to Orthodox and to Eastern Catholic traditions. It was the sixth in a series of biannual meetings between Catholics and Orthodox in Greece.

Also participating in the event was Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, spiritual leader of the Orthodox churches.

Pope John Paul sent a message that underlined the importance of theological discussion.

Cardinal Cassidy said that “the very fact that this symposium takes place in Greece is significant in itself.”

“When Catholics meet with Orthodox representatives there,” he added, “that is something very special — especially for Greece, where our contacts are not as good as they are in some other places.” (From combined wire services)