Pope arrives in Bulgaria
Pope John Paul II has arrived in Bulgaria for his first papal visit to the country, where it's hoped his presence will promote reconciliation with Orthdox Christians.
The Holy Father praised Christians in largely Orthodox Bulgaria for their resistance to communist-era oppression.
The 82-year-old pope, who has looked ever more frail recently, had the strength to make impromptu remarks in Italian after his official speech, thanking Bulgarians for his welcome joking: "The pope is an old man and that's why he is sitting down," while he gestured to Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov, who stood by his side during the arrival ceremony.
He urged Bulgaria to retain Christian values as it undertakes difficult social reforms in the push to convert the still deeply poor ex-communist state to a market economy. He also remembered the victims of east Europe's authoritarian regimes.
"Even during the long winter of the totalitarian system, which brought suffering to your country... numberless children of this people remained heroically faithful to Christ, in not a few cases to the point of sacrificing their lives," the pope said.
On arrival in Sofia, the pope was carried down the steps of the plane on a lift and his usual ritual of kissing the tarmac on disembarkation was substituted for his blessing a pot of soil lifted to his lips. He was then ferried to the airport terminal on an electric platform.
During the first-stage in Azerbaijan, the pope escaped a security alert when a shouting man on crutches rushed towards the altar where the pope was presiding over mass. Security officials told journalists the man said he wanted to have his picture taken with the pontiff. The situation resolved itself and the man later received a blessing from the pope.
The pope survived an assassination attempt 20 years ago in Rome for which three Bulgarians were tried for suspected complicity in the shooting by a Turk but cleared by the Italian court through lack of evidence.
Pope John Paul has said he has "never ceased" to love the Bulgarian people.
The pope arrived in Bulgaria from the Azerbaijani capital of Baku after a two-day trip during which he celebrated Mass for all 120 of the country's registered Catholics.
Pope in Bulgaria (official site)
Apostolic Voyage in Azerbaijan and Bulgaria, 2002 (Vatican website)
Welcome address of the Holy Father in Azerbaijan
Homily of the Holy Father at Baku Sports Palace
24 May 2002