Pope Francis has appealed for the care of migrants in Bulgaria which has not recently been welcoming of them, but his words during a trip seeking church unity riled a senior cleric in the dominant Orthodox Church in the eastern European nation.
A consistent message of the Pope since the migrant crisis of 2015 has been for the need to welcome refugees, whom he has said been scorned by fear-mongering European nationalists, The New York Times reported as the papal visit began.
"But rarely has he delivered it in a nation that has so few Roman Catholics — they make up less than one percent of the seven million people in a country that is mostly Bulgarian Orthodox," said the Times, noting that migrants in Italy have also faced hostility.
On the second day of his visit Vatican Media said that around ten thousand faithful gathered in the predominantly Catholic town of Rakovski, in southern Bulgaria after visiting a refugee camp earlier.
He spoke of how every person there is recognized as a child of God, regardless of ethnicity or religious confession, and how there is "no need to ask for a curriculum vitae."
The Pope said he met many Christians "who have learned to see with God's own eyes", a God who is not worried about details..
But on the second day of the visit Francis got a frosty reception from the dominant church in Bulgaria.
A high-ranking figure in the Bulgarian Orthodox church, Metropolitan Nikolai of Plovdiv, dismissed the papal visit as political and condemned in strong terms Francis' efforts to improve ties between the churches, The Times reported.
"The goal of all of this is to unite all the religions around the Pope, so that when the Antichrist comes, for the Pope to welcome him, and through him, all who are coming along with him," Nikolai told a congregation in a church in Plovdiv, Bulgaria's second-largest city.
"How to unite everyone?" he declared, in remarks first reported by Pod Tepeto, a Bulgarian news site. "It is not possible to unite the light and the darkness."
Francis began his three-day visit to Bulgaria and North Macedonia on May 5 aimed partly at improving relations with the Orthodox Church.
Orthodox leaders said, however, they would not take part in joint services or prayers with the Pope in Bulgaria, the BBC reported.
REJECTION OF JOINT SERVICES
The Pope met Orthodox leaders in Bulgaria in a Sunday visit after they had rejected taking part in joint services or prayers with him.
The Vatican has long been pushing for unity between the Western and Eastern branches of Christianity, which split in 1054 in one of two major schisms in the history of Church. The second was the Reformation in 1517 when Protestants broke from the Church of Rome.
At the presidential palace in Sofia, the pontiff spoke on the low birth rates and high levels of emigration in Bulgaria.
"Bulgaria, like so many other countries of Europe, must deal with what can only be called a new winter: the demographic winter that has descended like an ice curtain on a large part of Europe, the consequence of a diminished confidence in the future," he said, Reuters news agency reported.
Francis called on Bulgaria to "strive to create conditions that lead young people to invest their youthful energies and plan their future, as individuals and families, knowing that in their homeland they can have the possibility of leading a dignified life."
He also urged government officials "not to close your eyes, your hearts or your hands" to migrants.
Regarding ecumenism with efforts to foster cooperation among different churches, the Pope's trip to Bulgaria and North Macedonia is a delicate issue, as the majority of people in both countries are Orthodox Christians, Deutsche Welle reported.
"Indeed, U.S. media cited the vice director of the U.S. bishops' Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs as saying that the Pope may need to be particularly careful and navigate many potential "minefields," said DW.