Putin's Vatican visit aims to ease Catholic-Orthodox tensions

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Pope Benedict XVI met Tuesday in Vatican City in the highest-level Kremlin-Vatican talks in more than three years.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Pope Benedict XVI met Tuesday in Vatican Cityin the highest-level Kremlin-Vatican talks in more than three years.

The two leaders were expected to focus on ways of easing tension between Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians, and finding common ground on moral issues.

The meeting — the first between Benedict and Putin — is part of a visit that takes the Russian leader to Italy and Greece this week. Putin arrived at the Pratica di Mare air base near Rome on Tuesday afternoon.

Tension with the Russian Orthodox Church has stood in the way of a papal visit to Russia.

The Russian church accuses Catholics of improperly seeking converts in areas that traditionally would be Russian Orthodox. The Vatican has rejected the proselytizing accusations, saying it is only ministering to Russia's tiny Catholic community of about 600,000 people in a country of 144 million.

Long-running property disputes between the churches have also putthe sides at odds with each other.

The late Pope John Paul II's dream of going to Moscow was thwarted by lack of agreement with the Orthodox Church leadership.

Putin's predecessors, Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, invited John Paul to Russia. Putin, in two meetings at the Vatican with John Paul, did not issue any such invitation. Putin last visited the Vatican in November 2003.

The Pope's envoy to Russia called the meeting "a significant event" that should help Catholic believers in Russia.

"In this sense, it seems clear that the priority isn't identifying with a visit by the Holy Father to Moscow, but in progress in dialogue between Catholics and Orthodox," Archbishop Antonio Mennini told the Italian Catholic daily Avvenire.

On the Orthodox side, the Russian Church's representative for European affairs, Bishop Hilarion, said that both Russia and the Vatican "have much to do together to defend traditional moral values."

He also told Russia's Interfax news agency that a meeting of Benedict and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II would depend on "an understanding of key issues. … We first need to solve the existing problems."

Catholic officials have suggested that a meeting of the two leaders could take place first in a third country.

After the meeting at the Vatican, Putin was scheduled to hold talks with Italian Premier Romano Prodi. On Wednesday, the Russian president travels to the Adriatic city of Bari at the head of a delegation that includes foreign and economic ministers.