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Frail and feeble Pope blesses once-joined twins in anti-abortion gesture

 
VICTOR L. SIMPSON
Canadian Press
CREDIT: (AP/Diether Endlicher)
 
Villagers from the Tatra mountains in traditional dress sing and pray during a Mass celebrated by Pope John Paul II in Roznava, eastern Slovakia, Saturday. (AP/Diether Endlicher)
 

ROZNAVA, Slovakia (AP) - A frail Pope John Paul struggled through a long mass on a wind-swept hill Saturday, but lifted his arms to stroke the faces of two formerly conjoined toddlers in what Slovak bishops called a powerful gesture in the church's battle against abortion.

Nearing the end of a gruelling four-day pilgrimage, the 83-year-old Pope often slumped in his chair, slurred his words and lost his place in the text. But he made it through the 2-hour service.

John Paul's voice was weak and his left hand trembled badly as he addressed the crowd, speaking of "the Christian way of life." The Pope, who suffers from Parkinson's disease and crippling hip and knee ailments, turned his homily over to a cardinal to read after losing his place twice at the start.

The strength-sapping trip - his 102nd foreign tour - ends Sunday with an open-air mass in Bratislava, the capital.

"We all see that he is weak. But for Slovaks, whom he loves, he does a lot," President Rudolf Schuster said.

Saturday's mass in the eastern Slovakia city of Roznava was an opportunity for local Roman Catholic bishops to rally support for the church's tough stance against abortion.

As 150,000 pilgrims and a national television audience looked on, three-year-old Lucia and Andrea Tothova, wearing blue blouses and carrying dolls dressed in national costumes, were brought up to the altar.

The girls, who were joined at the pelvis before being surgically separated in 2000, were accompanied by their mother, Melita, who held them up to John Paul. The frail Pope held up his right hand and touched each on the cheek. The mother knelt and kissed the Pope's ring.

"Be protectors of life," the Pope told the crowd of pilgrims from Slovakia and neighbouring countries.

Local bishops, now fighting attempts to liberalize Slovakia's abortion law, said the encounter was intended to show the joy the mother would have missed had she resorted to abortion.

Under communism, when contraceptives were scarce, many Slovaks used abortion as a form of birth control.

But abortion, though legal in the first trimester of pregnancy for any reason and up to the 24th week for fetal defects, has steadily declined. A decade ago, Slovakia had one of the world's highest abortion rates, 40 per 1,000 women. Today, officials say, the rate is down to 10 per 1,000.

Church teaching forbids abortion in all cases.

The Vatican hopes that Slovakia, the Pope's native Poland and several other mainly Catholic countries will help balance what it sees as liberal trends when the ex-communist countries join the European Union next year.

Earlier in the week, John Paul thanked Schuster for his recent veto of federal legislation that would have added legal weight to the country's abortion rules. Schuster also attended Saturday's mass.

Since the girls' surgery, they both enjoy dancing and were given bicycles last Christmas. Slovak television showed video of them Saturday jumping around in their pyjamas.

The mother said in a Slovak TV interview broadcast Saturday that she did not know at the time she was carrying conjoined twins. She said the girls had endured "much suffering."

John Paul's pilgrimages have become increasingly difficult, but papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said he would not rule out further papal travel.

The Vatican is considering trips next year to Austria, France, Poland and Switzerland, although none has been confirmed. This is John Paul's third visit to Slovakia; he visited Croatia and Bosnia in the summer.



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