SOFIA, Bulgaria, Nov. 27 (AP)--Patriarch Maxim, the leader of Bulgaria's Orthodox Church, has refused to invite Pope John Paul II to come to this Balkan country despite the wish of its government for such a visit, an official said on Monday.

Metropolitan Gelasyi, Chief Secretary of the Holy Synod, told The Associated Press that Maxim--who is at odds with the Sofia government--declined to extend an invitation to the pope at a meeting with his envoy, Cardinal Edward Cassidy, on Saturday.

"Cardinal Cassidy asked whether it was possible or if any obstacles existed for the pope to be invited to Bulgaria," Gelasyi, who participated in the meeting, said in a telephone interview.

"Patriarch Maxim said that such an invitation cannot be extended for canonical reasons," Gelasyi said, referring to the religious divide between Catholic and Orthodox Christians.

The government of Prime Minister Ivan Kostov repeatedly has invited the pope to Bulgaria, but the pontiff has said he needs an invitation from Maxim as well.

"The clear desire of the pope is to be invited by the Bulgarian Orthodox Church," Gelasyi said.

"There's only an invitation" from the Bulgarian government, but there are no Vatican plans for a visit to Bulgaria, Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Ciro Benedettini told The Associated Press in Rome. "The pope wants his visits to be a unifying gesture, above all for Christians. If there are divisions, the pope doesn't go."

The government in Sofia believes that a papal visit could amount to a recognition that Bulgaria was not involved in the 1981 attempt on the pontiff's life by Turkish gunman Mehmet Ali Agca.

Italy acquitted for lack of evidence two Bulgarians whom it tried along with Agca on charges of complicity. Bulgarian leaders have been seeking ever since to clear their country's name.

Maxim is at odds with the government. Kostov's ruling party supports dissenting Orthodox clergy, who are pursuing his ouster and claim that his election under communism was rigged.

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