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Pope Falls Down, Cuts His Head

June 12, 1999

SANDOMIERZ, Poland (AP) _ Pope John Paul II fell and cut his head today before leaving Warsaw for an open-air Mass, receiving three stitches on his right temple.

Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said there was ``no neurological damage″ or any other effect on the 79-year-old pope’s health from what he called a ``slight contusion.″

The pope ``slipped accidentally″ and his head hit the ground while leaving the papal nuncio’s residence in Warsaw in the morning, Navarro-Valls said. He said he did not know what caused the pope to slip.

The frail, 79-year-old pontiff walks slowly with the aid of a cane. He sometimes slurs his speech and his left hands trembles, leading some to suspect he may have Parkinson’s, a neurological disease.

But his voice has been generally clear and strong since he arrived in Poland on June 5 to begin a 13-day pilgrimage to his homeland.

Navarro-Valls said there would be ``no variations at all″ in the pope’s schedule. Afterward he arrived on time for the Mass in the southeastern city of Sandomierz with a bandage on his head. He was helped up the stairs by two aides.

The fall came after the pontiff’s first day in Warsaw on Friday _ when he put himself in the middle of sensitive relations between Poland’s Roman Catholic Church and Jewish groups worldwide.

It was a triumphant day for the pontiff, who received a hero’s welcome for his unprecedented speech to Poland’s parliament, in addition to visiting a monument for victims of Stalinist oppression, closing a Polish bishop’s synod and blessing a new university library.

But the request from Poland’s chief rabbi for removal of the so-called Auschwitz cross disrupted the otherwise upbeat nature of the papal program.

The controversy over the cross has been the biggest strain in recent years in relations between Poland and the world’s Jews.

Jews say the 26-foot cross, visible from inside the camp that is largely a symbol of the Holocaust, harms the memory of more than 1 million Jewish victims killed at Auschwitz and nearby Birkenau camp in southern Poland.

The cross was the backdrop at a Mass celebrated by John Paul at Birkenau in 1979, and was moved to the lot adjoining Auschwitz in 1988 to commemorate 152 Polish resistance fighters executed on the site by the Nazis in 1942.

On Friday, Poland’s chief rabbi, Pinchas Menachem Joskowicz, approached John Paul when religious leaders greeted the pope during his speech to parliament.

The rabbi _ a Holocaust survivor _ offered thanks to Polish officials for recently removing 300 smaller crosses erected near the larger papal cross by radical Catholics protesting Jewish demands for the papal cross to be moved.

``I have a favor to ask of Mr. Pope, to call on his people to also take this cross out of the camp,″ Joskowicz said in broken Polish in the exchange broadcast live on national television. He returned to Poland from Israel and the United States 10 years ago.

John Paul’s brief response was inaudible, and Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls later called the issue a local one to be decided by the Polish church. But Navarro-Valls also said the ``great majority″ of Poles favor retaining the papal cross near Auschwitz.

Later, John Paul went to the notorious site from where the Nazis sent Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto to the gas chambers. Flanked by Jews, the pope prayed for five minutes and said, ``We feel the pain that you felt.″

Poland had a pre-war Jewish population of 3.5 million. Fewer than 30,000 Jews live in the country today.

John Paul, who has made tolerance and reconciliation themes of his pilgrimage that began a week ago, has done much during his papacy to fight anti-Semitism. He was the first pope to visit a synagogue, and he forged relations between the Vatican and Israel, removing a major stumbling block in Catholic-Jewish relations.

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