VATICAN CITY, MAY 4, 2001 (VIS) - After a two-hour flight from Rome, Pope John Paul arrived in Athens this morning at 11:30 local time, starting his 93rd apostolic trip outside of Italy. He was welcomed at Spata Airport by church officials, including the apostolic nuncio in Greece, Archbishop Paul Tabet and Archbishop Nikolaos Foscolos of Athens. He was also met by a minister of the Greek government as Greek protocol calls for welcoming ceremonies to take place at the presidential palace. 
As he has done for every foreign apostolic trip upon arriving for the first time in a country, the Holy Father kissed the native soil. Today a portion of Greek soil was brought to him in a container by a nun. The soil was from the Orthodox monastery of Timios Stavros.
 Athens, once a city-state and a cradle of Western civilization, is now the capital of Greece. It has a population of 4,000,000, including suburban areas. The archdiocese of Athens comprises 6,000,000 people, of whom 30,000 are Catholic. There is also the apostolic exarch of Greece for Greek Catholics of the Byzantine rite (2,300 Catholics) and the ordinariate of Greece for Catholics of the Armenian rite residing in Greece (550 Catholics). In addition, there are very small communities in Athens of Italian, French and Spanish Catholics, each with their own chaplain. Native-born Catholics in Greece number about 50,000 total, whereas the immigrant Catholic population is estimated to be 150,000. 
Upon his arrival at the presidential palace, the Pope was met by the president of the Hellenic Republic, Constantinos Stephanopoulos, who had been received in the Vatican this past January by Pope John Paul. The welcoming ceremony took place in the palace gardens. 
The Holy Father, who is the first Pope in 1,000 years to visit Greece, spoke of his "deep desire" to mark the Jubilee Year 2000 "by becoming a pilgrim to some of the places connected with the history of salvation. This desire became a reality with my pilgrimage to Sinai and the Holy Land.
Now it is to Greece that I come as a pilgrim, in the footsteps of St. Paul."
He also recalled that "it was here in the city of Athens that there began the dialogue between the Christian message and the Hellenistic culture, a dialogue which would decisively shape European civilization." He added that "certainly the first encounters of Christianity and high Greek culture were difficult" but "once the initial distrust was overcome, Christian writers began to see in Greek culture an ally rather than an enemy, and there emerged great centers of Christian Hellenism throughout the Mediterranean world. ... Gradually, then, the Hellenistic world became Christian and Christianity became to a certain extent Greek." 
John Paul II then highlighted how "Hellenistic culture is characterized by its attention to the education of the young," saying this is still valuable for society today. He underscored that "Among the most sure elements are the moral aspects contained in the Hippocratic Oath, which emphasizes the principle of unconditional respect for human life in the maternal womb." 
In concluding remarks, the Holy Father said: "Geography and history have set your country, Mr. President, between East and West, and this means that Greece's natural vocation is to build bridges
and a culture of dialogue. ... This task of integrating the Eastern and Western parts of Europe remains complex, and there is still much to be done to bring harmony between the Christians of the East and West, so that the Church can breathe with both her lungs. All believers should see themselves as having a duty to work for this objective. The Catholic Church in Greece desires to share loyally in this noble cause, which also has positive effects in the social sphere."