Vatican eyes bond with Russia as Medvedev visits

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The Vatican said it aimed to boost ties with Russia as President Dmitry Medvedev met Pope Benedict XVI on Thursday, but made no mention of prospects for a historic meeting with the Russian patriarch.

"The parties expressed their pleasure at the good state of bilateral relations and highlighted their desire to strengthen them," the Vatican said.

"Emphasis was given to the positive contribution inter-religious dialogue can make to society."

Russia and the Vatican established full diplomatic relations in December 2009 during Medvedev's last meeting with the pope.

The Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches in recent years have been trying to lay the groundwork for a historic meeting of their two leaders, following a period of frosty ties after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Orthodox leaders earlier accused the Vatican of trying to convert Russians to Catholicism, while local Catholic priests complained of harassment.

While major disagreements remain, including over the status of the Uniate Church in western Ukraine, tensions have recently eased.

"We have never rejected the possibility of such a meeting. It could take place," Alexei Dikarev, head of the intra-Christian relations department at the Moscow patriarch's office, told AFP.

"In order for it to be productive for both sides, we insist that it take place when the conditions have been created, in other words when relations between our churches will have been resolved," he said.

Dikarev referred in particular to the dispute in western Ukraine.

"An improvement is only possible when we see steps in favour of the Orthodox by the Catholic church. In three eparchies in western Ukraine the Orthodox had their churches taken away," he said.

"If this question is resolved we are ready to prepare such a meeting."

In a book of interviews with the pope published last year, Benedict was asked whether it was possible that he could meet Patriarch Kirill in the near future. He answered: "I would say that, yes."

"Despite all the differences that have built over the centuries... it is important that we truly re-learn to see and understand our inner spiritiual kinship with each other," he said.

"Orthodox public opinion in Russia has to be prepared for a meeting of this kind. There is still a certain fear of the Catholic Church. We need to wait patiently, and we mustn't rush things," he added.

© 2011 AFP

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