August 08, 1997

French critics slam Pope over grave visit plans

PARIS, Aug 8 (Reuter) - French critics on Friday accused Pope John Paul II of encouraging militant anti-abortion groups with his plan to honour one of their heroes during a visit to France later this month.

The Radical Socialist Party (PRS), a partner in the ruling left-wing coalition, said in a statement the planned visit to the grave of professor Jerome Lejeune would be ``a provocation'' and asked the pope to cancel it.

The PRS, and rebel bishop Jacques Gaillot, ousted by the Vatican from his diocese in 1995 because of his liberal views, said the visit would be seen as symbolic support for the militant groups.

The PRS said that Lejeune had been an inspiring force for anti-abortion squads, and the papal grave visit could be seen as an attempt by a foreign head of state to support the activists' challenge to French law.

The Pope will make his sixth trip to France from August 21 to 24, during which he will attend a Catholic world youth festival.

French anti-abortion groups have become increasingly militant in their protests and have repeatedly blocked access to hospital abortion wards.

They have not resorted to killing abortion clinic staff, as in the United States, but Gaillot said he feared they were becoming more violent. ``These are people who impose their laws by violent means,'' he said.

Lejeune, a friend of the pontiff, was a genetics professor and outspoken ``pro-life'' campaigner who staunchly opposed test-tube fertilisation but did not advocate violence against abortion clinics. He died in 1994 and is buried south of Paris.

The daily Le Monde also cast a critical eye on the Pope's planned visit to Lejeune's grave near Evry.