By Philip Pullella
VATICANCITY (Reuters) – Pope Francis travels on Friday to Romania, giving him another opportunity to preach a message of European integration and political rectitude even as he pays tribute to Christians killed during the communist era.
On his second trip to Eastern Europe in under a month, Francis will spend three days in Romania, which is overwhelmingly Orthodox Christian.
Catholics are little more than five percent of the 20 million population, according to government figures.
Earlier in May, Francis visited Bulgaria and North Macedonia, discussing issues such as migration and European Union membership.
He arrives in Romania at a time of domestic upheaval, after the most powerful politician, Liviu Dragnea, was jailed for corruption, and the ruling Social Democrats took a drubbing in Europe’s parliamentary elections.
One of his first events in Romania is a speech to government authorities, national leaders and the diplomatic corps.
Francis has often used such occasions to preach political morality and promote European unity.
While Romania is part of the European Union, which it joined in 2007, endemic corruption has kept it from admission in the Schengen area of no border controls and the European Commission has warned the government to clean its act up.
When Pope John Paul visited Romania in 1999, the visit was restricted to the capital Bucharest because that trip was part of a larger Vatican project to mend ties with the global Orthodox Church, which split with Rome in the Great Schism of 1054.
HOMAGE TO BISHOPS
But Francis will use planes and helicopters to visit the remote region of Moldova, close to the border with the former Soviet Union’s satellite Republic of Moldova.
He will also visit Transylvania, which has a large ethnic Hungarian population because it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until the end of the First World War.
One of the main religious purposes of his trip is to beatify seven communist-era bishops of the Eastern Rite Catholic Church who died either in prison or as a result of harsh conditions during incarceration. They were declared martyrs this year, putting them on the road to sainthood.
Eastern Rite Catholics are sometime called Greek Catholics because they worship in a Byzantine rite as Orthodox Christians do. But unlike the Orthodox, they recognise the pope’s authority and remain part of the Catholic Church.
After World War Two, Romania’s communist authorities confiscated properties of the Eastern Rite Catholic Church and ordered its members to join the majority Orthodox Church, which was easier for the party to control.
Those Catholics who refused faced imprisonment or death, and many worshipped underground.
Many Catholic properties that were taken by the communists or given by the government to the Orthodox Church have yet to be returned 30 years after the fall of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.
While restitution of properties is still what Vatican spokesman Alessandro Gisotti called “a wound of the past that is still there,” relations are generally good and the pope will meet and pray with the Romanian Orthodox Church leader, Patriarch Daniel.
(Additional reporting by Radu-Sorin Marinas in Bucharest; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)