ATHENS, Greece, May 2 (AP) - Pope John Paul II will break tradition in Athens and not kiss Greek soil amid worries the gesture could escalate anti-pope protests by Greek Orthodox zealots, Greek church officials said Wednesday.

The change - unprecedented in the pope's 22 years of worldwide travel - displays the level of concern associated with the 24-hour papal pilgrimage to Athens beginning Friday to retrace the steps of the Apostle Paul.

Since starting his travels in 1979, John Paul has kissed the ground when arriving in a country for the first time. In recent years, because of difficulties in bending down, the frail pontiff has been offered a vessel holding soil to kiss.

But in Athens, John Paul will be offered an olive branch and flowers, said Nikos Gasparakis, spokesman for the Roman Catholic Church in Greece.

A Roman Catholic priest, Rev. Nikiforos Vidalis, said the switch was made to avoid ``misunderstandings'' about the papal stop in Greece.

The Vatican declined to immediately confirm the details for the pope's arrival.

Greek Orthodox factions, including monks and parish priests, have led noisy demonstrations against the papal visit. The Vatican is often portrayed in Greece as hostile to Orthodox Christians and blamed for the demise of the Greek Byzantine Empire in the 15th century.

Christianity split into the Orthodox and Roman Catholic branches nearly 1,000 years ago over the issue of papal authority. Many Greek Orthodox clerics consider themselves caretakers of the original faith and view the pope as a heretical leader. There are only about 50,000 Greek Catholics among a population of nearly 11 million.

The latest anti-pope protest was planned for later Wednesday and some militants have suggested they would try to block the papal entourage on Friday.

The Vatican, however, insists the pope's visit can heal mistrust between the two churches. The pope's six-day trip also includes Syria and Malta.

The tension surrounding the Greek leg could be a prelude to the pope's planned trip in June to predominantly Orthodox Ukraine, where many clergymen share similar mistrust for the papacy.

The pontiff has already visited the mostly Orthodox nations of Romania and Georgia, but protests were limited and the pope went ahead with the soil-kissing ceremonies.

It is not the first time that the arrival gesture stirred controversy.

A compromise was reached in his 1989 visit to East Timor, the former Portuguese colony forcibly annexed by Indonesia. John Paul kissed a crucifix resting on a pillow on the ground to tone down a gesture reserved for visits to independent states.

East Timor, a Roman Catholic bastion in predominantly Muslim Indonesia, became independent following a 1999 referendum.

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