VATICAN CITY, Jan. 24 (AP) - The Greek president on Wednesday invited Pope John Paul II to Athens, a trip the pontiff has long sought to make, but that some in the Orthodox Church opposed.

Also Wednesday, a splinter group of Bulgaria's mainstream Orthodox Church invited the Roman Catholic leader to visit as well.

Greek President Costis Stephanopoulos made the invitation during an exchange of gifts with the pope, after 30 minutes of private talks at the Vatican.

``We are waiting for you in Athens, in Greece, soon,'' the president said, speaking in French. The pope replied, ``Thank you.''

John Paul said he would like to make the trip as part of his visit to biblical sites. It would be part of his efforts to improve relations between Catholic and Orthodox Christians.

In November, Greek Orthodox leaders refrained from either approving or disapproving such a visit, suggesting they would not throw up obstacles. In the past, some leading Orthodox clerics have stated their opposition.

Vatican planners said that such a visit could occur in the spring, as part of a possible papal trip to Syria.

The Greek president was in Italy on a three-day visit, which included talks with his Italian counterpart and with Italy's Premier Giuliano Amato. Speaking to reporters after meeting Amato, Stephanopoulos said that the pope ``would be received with the best of feelings and the highest of honors.''

In Bulgaria, a faction made up of foes of church leader Patriarch Maxim added their voice to the repeated invitations the Sofia government has extended to the pontiff.

``We join the request of Bulgaria's state leaders that you visit our fatherland,'' Metropolitan Inokentii, leader of the dissenters, wrote in a letter to the pope.

Bulgaria's leaders hope a papal visit will clear the country's name from suspicions that its secret services were involved in the 1981 assassination attempt against the pope by Turkish gunman Mehmet Ali Agca.

Three Bulgarians suspected of complicity in the shooting have been acquitted by an Italian court for lack of evidence.

The pope has said he would visit Bulgaria if its Orthodox Church invited him.

Maxim, who is at odds with the government, refuses to invite the pope, officially invoking the millennium-old split between Catholics and Orthodox.

The government of Prime Minister Ivan Kostov supports the dissenters, who are seeking to oust Maxim and accuse him of cooperating with the former Communist regime. Maxim dismisses the charges.

The government is refusing to legally recognize Maxim as an Orthodox leader under a law adopted last year, which requires all religious communities to renew their registration at a government agency on religious matters.

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