By Jim Ehlke
BBC News, Athens
The Pope has no obligation to visit Greece but when he comes he will probably be treated to extravagant and often bizarre festivities The Greek government has announced that next year’s visit of Pope Francis is to include a “celebration” in central Athens on the day of his arrival, 25 May. That, it says, would take his three-day visit to the country – which was officially requested by the Pope – to almost 11 hours. However, the government emphasised that this was a very important moment for both the Greek and Polish church. The Pope does not have to visit Greece to make a major impact on the Greek Christian public. But when he comes he will probably be treated to extravagant and often bizarre festivities. The families of the western Coptic Christians who have converted to the Greek Orthodox Church – many of whom now live in northern and western Greece – are expecting a large welcome. The Pope has a mission – to make it possible for ordinary Greek Christians to follow the growing affiliation of their peers. The images of the Church in western Greece have changed considerably in recent years. When I grew up in Pergamos, south of Thessaloniki, it was close to the epicentre of the priestly crisis. Sculptures of priests were missing from the churches of the early years of the 20th Century. Businesses were wiped out, marriages were called off and the share prices of many Coptic-owned shops and bars crashed. It took time and the growing pressures of modernity for many of the Coptic population to change their links with the Orthodox Church. Today there are big Coptic churches all over the country, and a number of them have even borrowed from the Orthodox churches in the eastern Mediterranean to build their mosques, churches and synagogues. Global recognition Most Coptic believers now live in the West in the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Europe. And few doubt that the Pope will create a global recognition for the Coptic Church. Some priests and leaders in the Greek Orthodox Church also believe the Pope will not only seek further development in the Greek Orthodox Church. He will want to re-establish it as the established church in the western Mediterranean region. Greek Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew – who met the Pope last week in Greece – hopes the visit of the Pope will change the church and help it maintain its historic links with the Coptic Christians. “I share the vision of the Pope in the face of certain crises which we have faced,” he told the BBC. “I also share the vision of the Pope that there is no need for a new state structure. We can solve our problems in our relations with our world leaders.” In a speech to Patriarch Bartholomew he said: “We have resolved to work together in order to preserve the fundamentals of the Coptic Christian communities in our common homeland.” His main message to Pope Francis, Patriarch Bartholomew said, was: “Let us form a bridge of calmness and to create a central place for you in the life of the Coptic and Eastern churches.” The Pope recently returned from a visit to Egypt, where he met Coptic Pope Tawadros II. Pope Francis has developed a strong rapport with Coptic Christians at home. In that way he can expect a warm welcome as he arrives in Greece.
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