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Putin meets Pope Benedict, seeks to mend orthodox-catholic rift

Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Pope Benedict XVI for the first time yesterday, acting as a mediator between the leader of the world’s Roman Catholics and the head of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Relations between the two branches of Christianity, which have been estranged for almost 1,000 years, were particularly tense under Pope John Paul II, Benedict’s predecessor. John Paul’s attempts to create a Catholic diocese in Russia drew the anger of Russian Patriarch Alexy II, who accused the Vatican of seeking to convert his followers.

„There was a very positive climate” in the meeting between Putin and the pope, the Vatican said in an e-mailed statement. The two discussed relations between the Roman Catholic and the Russian Orthodox churches among other issues, the statement said, giving no further details. This is not the first time that Putin has served as an intermediary between the two churches.

John Paul met twice with Putin in Rome. During their 2003 meeting, the two discussed the possibility of a first-ever papal visit to Russia.” There have been improvements,” Antonio Mennini, the Vatican’s envoy to Moscow, said yesterday in an interview with Avvenire, a Vatican-funded newspaper. „It is the aspiration of both churches to organize such a meeting as the endpoint of a genuine rapprochement.”

Senior Vatican officials have been to Russia to try and pave the way for a papal visit. Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi, archbishop of Milan, met with the Russian Orthodox leader in October 2006 and condemned the practice of „proselytism,” a reference to Patriarch Alexy’s accusation that Catholic missionaries have tried to woo his followers.

The 25-minute meeting yesterday started at about at 6 p.m. and was held in German, the native tongue of the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. Putin, a former spy in communist East Germany, is also fluent in the language. The Russian Church became independent of the Orthodox Patriarchate of Constantinople in 1448. The former capital of the Byzantine Empire fell to the Muslim Turks five years later. (Bloomberg)