Pope Francis seeks closer ties with Orthodox Church ahead of Greece visit


Twenty years after the last papal visit to Athens sparked protests by monks, Pope Francis heads to the Greek capital on Saturday seeking to improve historically difficult relations between the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox Churches.

Francis visited the island of Lesvos in 2016 but his trip to Athens, which will include a mass and meetings with the head of the Orthodox Church in Greece, Archbishop Ieronymos of Greece, and will be the first pope to visit Athens since John Paul II came in May 2001.

The Orthodox Church has been separated from the Catholic Church since the schism of 1054 between Rome and Constantinople, today's Istanbul which was then the capital of the Byzantine Empire.

Hardliners in Greece still blame the pope for the split, and for the Fourth Crusade that sacked Constantinople in 1204.

"Welcoming a pope to Athens may seem like a paradox... because there is anti-papist sentiment in Greece traditionally," Athens Archbishop Theodore Kodidis told AFP.

But he said the fact that most sides had accepted the visit was a "sign of hope and progress".

He added that it would be a "moment of unity" for the Catholic community in Greece, which represents around one percent of the faithful, or slightly more counting recently arrived migrants.