Many clergy are furious at a decision by the Greek Church´s ruling Holy Synod to lift long-standing objections to what will be the first papal visit since the "great schism" of 1054.
The Pope wants to make a flying visit to Athens in May as part of a millennial pilgrimage retracing the path of the Apostle Paul from Syria to Malta. He plans to offer symbolic prayers on the Hill of the Pnyx, an area of Athens to the west of the Acropolis where Paul preached to the Athenians.
Both liberal Orthodox members and the Vatican hope the visit will help to bridge the divide between the two Churches. But Greece´s conservative rank-and-file clergy are urging a boycott. They are angry at Rome´s perceived refusal to show "humility and repentance" and to apologize for centuries of alleged misdeeds against Orthodox Christians.
The union of Greek clerics, which represents about 8,000 parish priests, warned of widespread protests and described the Pope as "the arch-heretic" and the "grotesque two-horned monster of Rome." It threatened a mass bell-ringing protest during the visit.
In a petition last Friday to Archbishop Christodoulos, the leader of the Greek Church, the country´s monasteries said the visit would be divisive and "scandalize the consciousness of the faithful." Monks from the independent all-male community of Mount Athos, one of the most revered centers of Orthodoxy, also threatened to join the protests.
The police and security services in Greece and at the Vatican have been alerted about the potential for trouble.
Besides theological and political disputes with the Vatican, there are suspicions here that it is trying to poach Orthodox believers in Eastern Europe. The main targets of Orthodox fears are the Eastern-rite Churches which follow Orthodox traditions but profess loyalty to the Bishop of Rome. "They are the Trojan horse of the Catholic Church," an Orthodox bishop said.
Only about 50,000 of Greece´s 10.2 million citizens are Roman Catholics, though there are thought to be some 200,000 Catholic worshippers among the growing immigrant population.
The Catholic Church in Greece welcomed the decision by Orthodox leaders to allow the visit but expressed concern at the rhetoric of its opponents. "Conservative elements in the Orthodox church have very long memories," a spokesman said. "His Holiness has nothing to do with the wrongdoings of Catholics of the Middle Ages, for which we have apologized as a church."
Today the Vatican sent Archbishop Leonardo Sandri, substitute at the Secretariat of State, to promote good relations with the Athenian Archdiocese. Despite the attacks of some sectors, the Orthodox Church continues to cooperate in preparations for the papal visit. This task has been entrusted to Metropolitan Panteleimon, who is collaborating with the Greek Foreign Ministry and the apostolic nuncio in the country.
Vatican sources said that John Paul II´s trip to Athens should take place between May 4-5. He might also visit Damascus (May 5-8), and Malta (May 8-10). The Vatican Press Office, however, has not confirmed these dates.