ATHENS, Greece, Dec. 1 (AP) - Greek Orthodox Church leaders refused Friday to say whether they would formally welcome a visit by Pope John Paul II, but suggested they would not throw up serious obstacles.

The non-confrontational approach by the Holy Synod contrasts sharply with the fierce opposition last year from some leading Greek Orthodox clerics to a proposed papal visit.

The synod, or ruling body, cannot legally block a papal visit. But it's doubtful the Vatican would ignore strong dissent from Greece's state religion.

``The Holy Synod deeded that it does not have the authority to agree or disagree with this pilgrimage or to have objections,'' said spokesman Metropolitan Efstathios.

But he noted ``the right of any person, including the pope, to visit our country and worship at the place where Apostle Paul preached to the Athenians.''

Efstathios said the synod could again discuss the papal issue if a trip is formally announced.

Greece was included on a list of places the pontiff hoped to visit during pilgrimages to Biblical sites. Such a visit could occur in the spring as part of a possible papal visit to Syria.

A papal stop in Greece could unsettle the Greek Orthodox Church, which considers itself the protector of the nation's faith.

Some liberal clergymen could see the pope's presence as helping heal the nearly 1,000-year estrangement between Roman Catholics and Orthodox. But many Greek Orthodox factions hold strong anti-Vatican views.

A main dispute is over the role of Eastern Rite Churches, which follow Orthodox traditions and trappings but are loyal to the pope. Some Orthodox clergymen claim the Vatican is using Eastern Rite followers to encroach on historical Orthodox lands.

On Thursday, the Vatican announced plans for a June 21-24 papal visit to Ukraine, one of the main battle grounds between Orthodox and Eastern Rite Catholics.

Ukraine will be the latest mainly Orthodox country to be visited by the pontiff. Last year, he toured Romania and Georgia.

But on Monday, the leader of Bulgaria's Orthodox Church, Patriarch Maxim, refused to issue an invitation to the pope. The Bulgarian government has requested a papal visit, but the Vatican has said it needs an invitation from Maxim as well.

There has been no confirmations of other foreign trips next year for the aging and infirmed John Paul, the most widely traveled pontiff in church history. Besides the possible Syria and Greece pilgrimages, other places under consideration include Malta, Armenia and the pope's homeland Poland.

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