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Pope Arrives in Bulgaria - 2002-05-23

Pope John Paul II has arrived in Bulgaria after visiting the Caspian Sea country of Azerbaijan. The trip appears to be testing the pontiff's health.

During his visit to Bulgaria, the pope will meet with the country's small Catholic population.

There are an estimated 80,000 Roman Catholics in the country of 8 million and the rest are mostly Orthodox.

During his visit, the pope is scheduled to meet with representatives from the Orthodox Church as well as members of the Jewish and Muslim communities.

Many in Bulgaria hope the pope's trip will erase lingering rumors that the Bulgarian security services played a part in an assassination attempt on the pope.

Three Bulgarians were arrested after a Turkish man shot the pope in 1981, but they were released due to lack of evidence.

Security is tight for the pope's visit and officials have cordoned off the center of the capital city, Sofia.

Before traveling to Bulgaria, Pope John Paul visited the mostly Muslim country of Azerbaijan along the Caspian Sea. Azerbaijan also has a small Catholic population of about 150 people.

The travel is taking a toll on the Catholic leader. While in Azerbaijan, he started mass befiore asking an aide to finish the service, something he has done often in recent months. He also used a motorized platform to get on and off the plane, instead of climbing up and down the stairs.

The pope suffers from Parkinson's disease as well as hip and knee ailments.

Since the demise of the Soviet Union, the pontiff has made it a point to visit many formerly Communist countries, such as Romania and his homeland of Poland. He has also traveled to various former Soviet republics such as Kazakhstan and Ukraine.

But the pontiff has failed to travel to Russia, due to a riff with the Russian Orthodox Church. Officials from the Moscow patriarchy say the Roman Catholic Church is trying to convert Orthodox believers.