DUBLIN, Ireland (AP) – Pope John Paul II has accepted “in principle” an invitation to visit both parts of Ireland, although a trip this year appears unlikely, Catholic leaders announced Friday.

Catholic bishops last month invited the pope to come to Ireland to mark the 25th anniversary of his first visit to the country in 1979. Unlike that trip, this visit would include the British territory of Northern Ireland.

“Our invitation request has been placed before the Holy Father and a reply has been received from the Vatican’s secretariat of state indicating that the proposed visit has, in principle, been accepted,” said Archbishop Sean Brady, primate for Ireland’s 4 million Catholics.

“We are delighted with this response and hope that this visit will take place,” he said.

In Rome, Vatican sources said they knew of no plans for an immediate visit by the pope to Ireland.

Brady said that given the pope’s existing commitments this year “a visit in 2004, while not ruled out, is rather unlikely.”

But the archbishop said local officials would begin planning for an eventual papal tour. The 84-year-old pontiff has Parkinson’s disease and knee and hip problems.

“The program of places to be visited has yet to be prepared and agreed. … An appropriate and substantial program of prayer, preparation and reflection is essential to ensure that the people of Ireland would gain maximum benefit from another papal visit,” he said.

Brady’s announcement came as the pontiff wrapped up an Alpine vacation in northern Italy, with a last excursion by car into a valley with a view of Mount Blanc. On Saturday, John Paul was scheduled to travel from the mountains to his summer retreat in Castel Gandolfo, in the Alban hills near Rome, where he will be based for the next two months.

The pope’s health condition, including Parkinson’s disease and hip and knee problems, has forced him to scale back physical activities, but the Irish announcement underscored his determination to still travel if possible.

Papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls told Vatican Radio that during the holiday the pope “rested and was able to go out every day,” also spending time reading, and in prayer and in contemplation.

The pope had planned in August 1979 to visit the Northern Ireland city of Armagh, the ecclesiastical capital of Ireland.

But the northern part of the trip was canceled, partly because of a surge that month in Irish Republican Army violence – the outlawed group assassinated Lord Mountbatten and killed 18 British paratroopers in a border ambush – and fears of possible protests by Protestant hard-liners.

Some evangelical Protestant leaders, including the province’s longest-serving politician, the Rev. Ian Paisley, have branded the pope an “antichrist.”

The IRA has been observing an open-ended truce since 1997. Speculation of a possible papal visit to Northern Ireland has mounted since the Good Friday peace accord of 1998, which sought to end the conflict over the British territory that has claimed more than 3,600 lives since 1969.

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