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Pope says emigration, low birth rates have brought 'Ice Curtain' on Europe

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SOFIA (Reuters) - Pope Francis urged European leaders on Sunday to address wealth inequality and low birth rates which he said had created an “ice curtain” between Europe’s richer and poorer states and was fuelling emigration.

Francis was speaking during a two-day visit to Bulgaria, his first and the first by a pope in 17 years. He also met with leaders of the Eastern Orthodox Church. He moves to North Macedonia on Tuesday.

Sensitive relations with the Eastern Orthodox Church means Francis will have to tread carefully in both countries, where Catholics are a tiny minority.

Using a play on Winston Churchill’s famous phrase about an “iron curtain” falling over a divided Europe after World War Two, Francis said new divisions were lacerating the face of the continent 30 years after the fall of communism.

“Bulgaria, like so many other countries of Europe – must deal with what can only be called a new winter: the demographic winter that has descended like an ice curtain on a large part of Europe, the consequence of a diminished confidence in the future,” he said in a speech at the presidential palace in Sofia.

Bulgaria, which joined the European Union in 2007, remains its poorest member state. More than two million Bulgarians have left the country since the fall of communism for better jobs and living standards in western Europe, leaving a current population of about seven million.

Francis urged Bulgaria “to strive to create conditions that lead young people to invest their youthful energies and plan their future, as individuals and families, knowing that in their homeland they can have the possibility of leading a dignified life.”

One purpose of the three-day trip is to improve relations with the Orthodox churches as part of the Vatican’s push for eventual unity between the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity that split in 1054.

The Bulgarian Orthodox community is one of the most hardline in relations with the Vatican and the only one to have boycotted the recent meetings of the official Orthodox-Catholic dialogue.

Additional reporting by Angel Kasimirov; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky