BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) _ The Romanian Orthodox Church has invited Pope John Paul II to visit the predominantly Orthodox country in May.
The invitation announcement came as a surprise Friday, since the Orthodox Church has been mired in a bitter dispute with Eastern Rite Catholics over some 2,500 Catholic churches seized by the Communists in 1948 and given to the Orthodox.
Pope John Paul II, who has been seeking to improve relations between Orthodox and Catholic Christians, expressed his wish to visit Romania last year. Romanian President Emil Constantinescu invited the pontiff last July, but the Romanian Orthodox Church invitation was necessary, too.
The Eastern Rite Catholic Church, Romania’s second largest church founded 300 years ago, recognizes the Pope as its top authority. The Romanian Orthodox Church’s spiritual leader in is Istanbul.
Only a few weeks ago, the Orthodox Church had said it would not extend an invitation to the Pope unless the Eastern Rite Catholics withdraw by Feb. 22 hundreds of lawsuits for the return of church property.
Catholics believe restitution should be decided by courts and have won several cases. The Orthodox Church wants each community to decide the denomination of local churches.
However, in what seemed to be a shift in attitude by the Eastern Rite Catholics, the two churches issued a joint statement in which the Catholics said they would, ``as a priority, resolve conflicts which have led to lawsuits ... through dialogue.″
``We hope this difference of opinions will be resolved later,″ the statement said.
About 100 churches have been returned to the Eastern Rite Catholics since communism ended in 1989. Catholics make up some five percent of Romania’s 23 million population.