The first visit by a pope to a Christian Orthodox country in almost 1000 years is creating hope for greater unity with Catholicism, despite doubts cast on the timing of the visit because of the war in neighbouring Yugoslavia.
    Hundreds of thousands of Roman Catholics, Orthodox and people just curious to see John Paul II are expected to attend services during the papal visit that begins today.
    The invitation to visit this predominantly Orthodox country of 23 million people came as somewhat of a surprise, since the Orthodox Church has been mired in a bitter dispute with Eastern Rite Catholics over some 2500 Catholic churches seized by the Communists in 1948 and given to the Orthodox.
    However, in what seemed to be a shift in attitude by the Eastern Rite Catholics, the two churches issued a joint statement earlier this year in which they promised to resolve the conflicts through dialogue -- a move that paved the way for the pontiff's visit.
    The Eastern Rite Catholic Church, Romania's second largest, recognizes the pope as its top authority. The Romanian Orthodox Church's spiritual leader in is Istanbul.
    However, John Paul will not travel to Transylvania, home to most of Romania's Catholics and the center of the property dispute.
    ``We consider the pope's visit divine providence,'' said Archbishop Lucian Muresan, head of Romania's Eastern Rite Catholics in a telephone interview. ``If the pope is not allowed to come to us, we'll go to the pope.''

9:58am 7/5/99 / AP


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