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Pope Beatifies 3 Bulgarian Priests - 2002-05-26

Pope John Paul II has beatified three Bulgarian priests Sunday while celebrating mass in Bulgaria. The priests were killed by Communist authorities.

The three priests were shot by a Communist firing squad in 1952, after being convicted by a Communist show trial for allegedly being Vatican spies. Their beatification, during a three-hour mass on Sunday in the Bulgarian city of Plovdiv, puts them one step before sainthood in the Catholic church.

While on his first trip to the mostly Orthodox country of Bulgaria, the pope has praised people for struggling against years of Communist oppression. During Soviet times, anyone practicing religion risked political persecution. Churches and monasteries were closed and Communist officials advocated atheism.

Only about one percent of Bulgarians are Catholic and the majority of them live in the city of Plovdiv, the site of Sunday's mass.

The journey has been a physical challenge for the aging pontiff. While on this five-day trip, which also included a short stay in the Caspian Sea nation of Azerbaijan, the pope's health has been closely observed.

The 82-year-old pontiff, for the first time, used a motorized lift to get on and off the plane while traveling. Pope John Paul was also unable to complete saying mass in Azerbaijan. As he has on other occasions, he started the mass and then asked an aide to continue for him. His breathing is often shallow and his speech slurred.

During his travels the pope's health has been widely talked about. After a meeting with the pope, the Bulgarian prime minister said the pontiff's mental health is better than his physical condition. But an Orthodox priest in Bulgaria said the pope's aides should caution him to be careful and save his strength.

The pope is believed to be suffering from Parkinson's disease and hip and knee problems.

Despite his poor health, the pope has said he has no desire to step down. There is still one country he would like to visit during his papacy, and that is Russia.

But a rift with the Russian Orthodox Church has made such a trip impossible at this time. The Moscow patriarchy has accused the Catholic Church of trying to convert Orthodox believers to Catholicism.