ATHENS, Greece, March 20 (AP) - Pope John Paul II will visit Athens on May 4-5 as part of a Biblical pilgrimage following in the footsteps of the Apostle Paul, a Vatican official said Tuesday.

Archbishop Leonardo Sandri made the announcement after meeting with Archbishop Christodoulos, the leader of the Greek Orthodox Church. The 80-year-old pontiff will include Greece on a planned trip to Syria and Malta.

``I only had the occasion to bring him a message of the Holy Father, a message of love, a message of joy because the Holy Father can come here to follow in the steps of St. Paul,'' Sandri, the Vatican undersecretary of state, said after the 45-minute meeting.

It was the first visit to Athens by a senior Vatican official after the Holy Synod, the governing body of the Greek church, in early March lifted its objections to a papal visit.

Attempts to improve relations between Roman Catholics and the Orthodox are commonly viewed with hostility by the conservative Greek clergy, who accuse the Vatican of trying to extend its influence eastward.

The papal visit is seen as a significant step forward in a broader effort to reconcile the two churches and heal the 1,000-year-old estrangement between Roman Catholics and Orthodox.

``We are open for all the people, and we are in a way of peace and reconciliation and love for all. I'd like to say in the name of the Holy Father a great hope for Greece. He bless Greece and all the people of this great country,'' Sandri said.

Sandri kissed Christodoulos three times on the cheek in greeting before delivering a papal letter.

Christodoulos has come under pressure from priests, monks, nuns, and church groups to revoke the Holy Synod decision. Last week, 169 abbots representing 1,750 monks and nuns said there could be ``dynamic expressions of opposition'' should the pope visit Greece.

More than 97 percent of the native-born population is baptized into the Greek Orthodox Church, the official state religion.

The government has been urged to take steps to ensure the pope's security and prevent thousands of Orthodox zealots from holding mass protests in the capital.

Mainstream clerical groups have not ruled out protests, while a number of fringe groups have threatened to stage mass demonstrations. Clerics close to the archbishop have expressed concern.

``I hope everything goes well,'' the very Rev. Thomas Sinodinos, chancellor of the archdiocese, said after Sandri's visit.

In an effort to explain the church's decision, Christodoulos sent a letter late Monday to the 79 metropolitans, or bishops, that make up the church. He called on senior clerics to convince parishioners and monks to remain calm.

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