A high-ranking Vatican envoy says Pope and Russian Orthodox leader unlikely to meet soon

A high-ranking Vatican envoy on today praised progress in the Holy See's cooperation with the Russian Orthodox Church, but indicated that disagreements between the two churches were still preventing its leaders from holding a meeting any time soon.

"We established a heartfelt mutual understanding between our churches, and we see in this a source for future cooperation," Cardinal Renato Martino, who heads the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, said of his talks in Moscow. However, asked whether a meeting between Pope Benedict XVI and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II was imminent, he said: "we begin with small steps."

Martino said the two churches had very close positions on social issues, and that a conference on that subject could be held by delegates of both churches. Russian Orthodox Church spokesman Igor Vyzhanov agreed that the Vatican envoy's visit was fruitful.

Vatican and Orthodox leaders have long been talking about the need to reconcile the two churches. Benedict XVI has pledged to make healing strained ties with the Orthodox Church a "fundamental" commitment.

Benedict's predecessor, John Paul II, never fulfilled his dream of visiting Russia following the 1991 Soviet collapse because of disputes between the two churches, which have been split since the Great Schism of 1054. Alexy said a papal visit would only be possible after the Catholic Church stops alleged poaching for converts and discrimination against the Orthodox in western Ukraine, reports the AP.

The Vatican has rejected the proselytizing allegations, saying it is only ministering to Russia's tiny Catholic community _ about 600,000 people in a country of about 144 million.


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