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Ex-Soviet republic refuses Vatican pact
( 2003-09-20 14:41) (Agencies)

Georgian officials canceled plans to sign an agreement with the Vatican on Friday after thousands of Orthodox Christian faithful blocked traffic to protest what they feared could result in a Catholic takeover of their country.

Officials assured the protesters that the agreement would not harm the interests of the dominant Georgian Orthodox Church and would merely protect the religious freedom of the country's estimated 50,000 Catholics. Nevertheless, they yielded to protesters' demands, saying a national dialogue was needed.

The government revealed very little about the agreement until Friday when officials read some of the clauses to the protesters. It would obligate Georgia to guarantee freedom to perform Catholic rites, allow the opening of Catholic schools and permit all Catholics to study the history of their religion.

In former Soviet republics where Orthodox believers are in the majority, relations between the Christian faiths that split nearly 1,000 years ago are tense, with Orthodox leaders accusing the Catholic Church of poaching souls in Orthodox territory.

The Vatican's foreign minister, Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, arrived Thursday in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, for talks that were to include the signing, scheduled for Friday.

At about midday, some 200 university students blocked Rustaveli Avenue in front of the parliament building in the capital, Tbilisi. As more protesters joined in the afternoon, the crowd swelled to 2,000.

"We won't let them sign it," the crowd of mostly young people chanted. Some held handwritten signs hailing the Georgian Orthodox Church.

Some of the protesters said they feared the Roman Catholic Church could lure people away from Orthodoxy because it is far wealthier than the Georgian church.

"The Catholic Church has more money and naturally they will make donations and attract people financially to lure them to Catholicism," said Alexander Kuparadze, 19.

About an hour into the protest, State Minister Avtandil Dzhorbenadze addressed the crowd. He said President Eduard Shevardnadze, who was attending a summit in Ukraine, had ordered the signing to be canceled.

The Vatican declined to comment Friday. In Tbilisi, Bishop Giuseppe Pacotti, the head of the Roman Catholic Church in Georgia, said: "I hope that a mutual understanding will be reached in the end."

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