ATHENS (Reuters) - Roman Catholics in mainly Orthodox Greece are preparing excitedly for a visit by Pope Francis that they hope will help bring Eastern and Western Christianity closer together.
Francis will visit Greece on Dec. 4-6 after a two-day trip to Cyprus.
"The fact that he himself is coming to Greece when it's predominantly an Orthodox country is something very big for us and we just can't wait," said Mary Katherine Binibini, 24, a member of a Catholic youth group. Though she was born in Greece, her family is originally from the Philippines.
Greek Catholics number only about 50,000, out of a total population of around 11 million, but foreigners including, in recent years, asylum seekers, have swollen the figure to around 150,000.
"The Catholic community awaits this visit in celebratory mood," Theodoros Kontidis, Catholic Archbishop of Athens, told Reuters.
"Greece and Cyprus are a door of contact with Orthodoxy. Relations with the Orthodox Church are important and must be maintained and developed," Kontidis said.
"They have a lot of things in common, so collaboration and communication between the two Churches in the modern world, with whatever problems Christianity faces, is significant," he added.
'BROTHER IN FAITH'
Christianity split into the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches in 1054 in what is referred to as the Great Schism, and for centuries relations were rocky.
In an attempt to heal the rift, in 2001 John Paul II became the first pope ever to visit Greece. His appeal at that time for forgiveness for historic wrongs committed by Catholics against Orthodox Christians helped to thaw relations.
In a video message released ahead of his trip to Greece and Cyprus, Francis said: "As a brother in faith I will have the grace to be received by you and to meet you in the name of the Lord of peace."
This will be Francis' second trip to Greece. In 2016 he visited a refugee camp on the island of Lesbos and prayed with Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual head of the world's 250 million Orthodox Christians, and Ieronymos, Archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Church. He will meet the latter again on this trip.
Francis will also visit a refugee reception centre again on Lesbos, which was on the frontline of a mass migrant influx into Europe in 2015.
"He has shown a sensitivity to the issue (of refugees)... He may want to show that this is an issue that is still alive," said Kontidis.
The pope will also meet Greece's president and prime minister in Athens as well as young people at a Catholic school. A large mass is planned on Sunday at the Megaro Mousikis, a concert hall in the Greek capital.
(Editing by Gareth Jones)