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Pope to visit Bulgaria next May

Pope John Paul II will visit Bulgaria next May, the country's foreign minister announced on Thursday.

Solomon Pasi told reporters he had received a confirmation of the visit from Msgr. Antonio Mennini, the apostolic nuncio in Sofia. The exact date was left open.

Mennini was not immediately available for comment, but two months ago he said such a visit would be an ``expression of the pontiff's respect for Christian Orthodox Bulgaria.'' He said the pope also planned meetings with Muslim religious leaders.

On Thursday, Pasi expressed hope that the visit will help ``erase from Bulgaria's image the blemish of ... (alleged) involvement in the attempt on the pope's life''.

Bulgaria's leaders hope a papal visit will help dispel lingering suspicions that Bulgarian secret services were involved in the 1981 assassination attempt against the pope by Turkish gunman Mehmet Ali Agca.

Three Bulgarians suspected of complicity in the shooting were subsequently acquitted by an Italian court for lack of evidence.