Cardinal to meet with Patriarch Alexy II

A high-ranking Vatican official left on Saturday for Russia, where he planned to meet with the head of the Russian church, the Vatican said. The move comes amid attempts by the Holy See to improve relations with Russian Orthodox Christians.

Cardinal Renato Martino, who heads the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, was scheduled to meet on Tuesday with Patriarch Alexy II and Metropolitan Kyrill, who heads the Russian church's foreign relations department, Martino's office said.

Pope Benedict XVI has pledged to make healing strained ties with the Orthodox Church a "fundamental" commitment. Benedict's predecessor, John Paul II, long sought to visit Russia, but he was blocked by the Russian Orthodox Church, which accused the Catholic Church of poaching converts after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

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 144 million.

The Holy See and the then-Soviet Union established official ties in 1990, but they fell short of full diplomatic relations. The Vatican says the two have "relations of a special nature" in which Russia maintains a mission with an ambassador in Rome and the Vatican a papal nuncio in Moscow, AP reports.

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