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Pope John Paul II Rebuked By France's Socialist Party

By Charles Trueheart
The Washington Post

France's governing Socialist Party delivered a stinging admonition to Pope John Paul II Friday, officially "regretting" the visiting pontiff's decision to pray at the grave of a prominent antiabortion crusader.

"The meaning of such a gesture can only cause discontent and risks encouraging in our country the determination of those who wage a struggle bearing the mark of intolerance," the party of Prime Minister Lionel Jospin said in a statement.

The extraordinary rebuke was issued a few hours before John Paul, here for the four-day World Youth Days festival that has drawn more than half a million Roman Catholic pilgrims, was expected to travel by helicopter to the tomb of French geneticist Jerome Lejeune in Chalo-Saint-Mars, 40 miles southeast of Paris.

Vatican authorities described the visit to the grave of Lejeune, a friend and intellectual soul mate of the pope, as private. The cemetery was surrounded by some 400 French anti-terrorist forces who kept out onlookers and reporters.

Lejeune was the founder of Let Them Live, an antiabortion group, and had just been appointed by John Paul II to a high Vatican post when he died in April 1994.

Lejeune was renowned in scientific circles around the world for his discovery of the extra chromosome that causes Down's syndrome. In part because of his research, many women choose to end their pregnancies when tests show evidence of the congenital condition in the fetus.

The Socialist Party statement said that the French right to abortion, in place since 1975, should be respected and condemned protests at a Paris hospital by antiabortion groups during the World Youth Days events this week.

The Socialist Party joined other abortion rights advocates who had singled out this item on the pope's agenda for criticism. "The pope is reopening the debate over abortion that once tore this country apart and that no one wants to revive," declared Yvette Roudy, a Socialist former minister of women's rights, before the pontiff arrived Thursday. "The pope is welcome in France as long as he doesn't meddle in the internal affairs of the republic," she said.

Church and state have been officially separate in France for more than 90 years, and the principle of laicism, or religious tolerance, is stoutly defended here even though most French citizens still describe themselves as Catholics.

Standing at the foot of the Eiffel Tower on Thursday, John Paul addressed more than 500,000 young Catholics from around the world. "Dear young people, the church believes in you," he said.

The adulation of John Paul, 77, was widespread among the young people, whose numbers exceeded most expectations and could grow at two weekend masses.