Pope's envoy appeals for unity among Christians in visit to Yugoslavia

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia - A papal emissary working to improve relations among Christians traveled to Belgrade on Friday for the first visit by a Vatican official to Yugoslavia since a new government took power from Slobodan Milosevic.

Cardinal Walter Kasper said he was "thrilled" to be here for the first time. He greeted his Roman Catholic hosts, Yugoslav authorities and all citizens, regardless of faith.

"My greetings to all Orthodox Christians, our beloved brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ," Kasper said at a reception at Belgrade's airport.

The cardinal's visit is part of a wider Vatican effort to improve relations with the Orthodox Christians after a millennium of division. Yugoslavia's 10 million people are predominantly Orthodox Christian, but there are sizable Roman Catholic and Muslim communities.

The Eastern and Western Christian churches began drifting apart in the 5th century. The break became definitive in 1054, when the churches split in a dispute over papal authority.

Pope John Paul II has made the improvement of relations between the two churches a goal of his papacy. He visits Bulgaria, another Orthodox country, later this month.

Kasper, who is the secretary of the pope's Council for Christian Unity, was recently rebuffed by the largest Orthodox community, the Russian Church. The Russians refused to receive the cardinal on a scheduled visit in February, in protest over the pope's "unfriendly" decision to set up dioceses in Russia.

The cardinal is the most senior Vatican official to visit in more than a decade. During Milosevic 13-year-rule, relations with the Roman Catholic Church were strained after Yugoslavia was ostracized by the West for the former leader's autocratic policies.

Kasper is to attend a Sunday liturgy by the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Pavle, and meet officials from Serbia, Yugoslavia's dominant republic, on Monday.