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Paying homage to Protestant victims of Europe’s religious wars, Pope

July 3, 1995

KOSICE, Slovakia (AP) _ Paying homage to Protestant victims of Europe’s religious wars, Pope John Paul II kept a firm focus on his cherished goal of Christian unity.

Protestants thought the pope’s canonization of three 17th-century Catholic priests in Kosice on Sunday before about 300,000 worshipers reflected a one-sided picture of the tumultuous period of religious warfare.

About 5,000 Protestants had gathered in nearby Presov, in eastern Slovakia, Saturday to honor 24 Protestants who were beheaded because they refused to convert to Catholicism.

Seeking to heal the newly reopened wounds, the pope made a point of praising the 24 Protestants on Sunday as he canonized the three Catholics _ Hungarian Stephan Pongracz, Croat Mark Kirzevcanin and Pole Melchor Grodziecki.

Hours later, he went further. Emerging from his `popemobile’ in a driving rain, John Paul visited a memorial to the 24 in Presov, and shared a prayer with the Evangelical bishop of eastern Slovakia, Jan Midriak.

``We really appreciate this gesture,″ Midriak said. ``The 17th century was an extremely hard time for both faiths. People died on both sides, and it was very right that the pope recognized that there were cruelties on both sides.″

Midriak said he and the pope recited the Our Father (the Lord’s Prayer) together as they stood for several minutes before the memorial.

Sunday was the third day of John Paul’s four-day visit to this predominantly Catholic country of 5.2 million people bordering his native Poland.

During Mass at the airport in Kosice, a steel town near the Hungarian and Ukrainian borders, John Paul praised all who held true to their faith.

He hailed the ``spiritual greatness″ of the 24 martyred Protestants. ``To them, and to all who accepted suffering and death out of fidelity to the dictates of their conscience, the Church gives praise and expresses admiration,″ he said.

The pope is intent on reconciling Christians as the next millennium approaches. But his visit to Slovakia, and a May mission to the neighboring Czech Republic, illustrate some of the challenges.

In the Czech Republic, John Paul faced a similar controversy over his canonization of a 17th-century Jesuit. He used the event to ask forgiveness for past Catholic intolerance.

The Roman Catholic Church also faces difficulties in its relationship with Orthodox believers.

In Presov on Sunday, John Paul attended a prayer service with Eastern Rite Catholics, who are loyal to Rome but use Orthodox ritual.

They were suppressed by Communist governments in Czechoslovakia, Ukraine and elsewhere in the region after World War II, and church property was given to Orthodox churches.

The Eastern Rite Catholics’ retrieval of their confiscated property after the fall of communism in 1989 alienated the Orthodox.

John Paul, quoting from his recent encyclical urging better relations between faiths, said believers at odds with others need ``a calm, clear-sighted and truthful vision of things.″

Last week at the Vatican, the pope met with Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew, who journeyed from Istanbul to participate in a Mass led by John Paul in St. Peter’s Basilica.