Pope Benedict XVI to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin on March 13

Pope Benedict XVI will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin here on March 13 in the highest-level Kremlin-Vatican talks in more than three years, the Holy See said Thursday.

Putin will hold bilateral talks with Italian leaders in southern Italy and will meet Benedict in Rome, said a Vatican spokesman the Rev. Ciro Benedettini.

It will be the first meeting between Benedict and the Russian leader.

When Putin last visited the Vatican, in November 2003, for a meeting with Pope John Paul II, the president said that he wanted to help end the dispute between the Vatican and the Russian Orthodox Church, but he did not invite the pontiff to Moscow, the AP reports.

John Paul died in 2005 without realizing his long-held dream of visiting Russia in the hope of improving relations between Catholic and Orthodox Christians following the fall of Soviet-bloc communism, the AP says.

The Russian Orthodox church had thwarted his dream because it suspects Catholics are looking for converts in its traditional territory, an accusation the Vatican denies. Long-running property disputes between the churches have also fed tensions.

Putin's two predecessors, Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, had invited John Paul to Russia.

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