Vatican, Orthodox Heirarchy Talk in Moscow

A top Vatican official arrived in Moscow on Tuesday for sensitive talks with the Russian Orthodox hierarchy, which accuses the Catholic Church of aggressive proselytizing in traditionally Orthodox lands.

Cardinal Walter Kasper, head of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, arrived a day later than originally planned.

There was no explanation for the delay of the highest-level visit by a Vatican official in four years, but it occurred amid complaints by the Russian Orthodox Church over Vatican proposals to elevate the Greek Catholic presence in Ukraine into a full patriarchate.

On Tuesday, the Moscow Patriarchate posted on its web site what it said were responses from 14 Orthodox churches in th Ukraine to the Vatican plans. All were negative, with some saying the shift was an attack on Orthodoxy that would damage relations between the two churches.

Kasper said he did not want to start his visit with debates, and said, in a world torn by conflict, two churches that share such similar values should get along better.

"We don't want polemics. We want friendship between the two churches," he told reporters after his arrival. "I've come here to turn the old page and open a new page of friendship and love in the history of the two churches."

Tensions between the Orthodox Church, the dominant Christian faith in Russia and Ukraine, and Roman Catholicism have deep historical roots. But they have deepened markedly since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and communist restrictions on religion faded.

In particular, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Alexy II, has accused Greek Catholics in western Ukraine, who retain Eastern-rite rituals but recognize the pope's supremacy, of having increased their expansion into traditionally Orthodox eastern and southern Ukraine.

Latin and Eastern Rite Catholics are a large minority of some 6 million in Ukraine, a predominantly Orthodox nation of 48 million.

The Vatican rejects the Orthodox accusations of proselytizing. Catholics have sought to recover churches that belonged to them before the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and attract new followers.

A Vatican official said Tuesday that Catholic bishops in Ukraine had asked Pope John Paul II to elevate the status of the Greek Catholic church in Ukraine to a full patriarchate. Kasper was probably going to discuss the issue during his visit as a matter of courtesy, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

When the Vatican first announced Kasper's trip Jan. 22, it said he would be received by Alexy II as well as Metropolitan Kirill, who heads the church's foreign relations department. But on the eve of his visit, Vatican Radio on Monday spoke only of a meeting with Kirill, indicating the Moscow Patriarchate was no longer confirming a meeting with Alexy II.

Alexy II has been the main opponent to a long-sought visit to Russia by the pope.

The Vatican official said, however, the original plans for an audience with with Alexy II remained valid — even though he acknowledged that the issue of the Ukraine church probably had complicated Kasper's visit.

"We know of the difficulties that there are ... but we hope they will meet," the official said.

A scheduled visit by Kasper two years ago was canceled because of Orthodox outrage over the naming of archbishops in Russia by the pope.

As recently as last month, Alexy said relations with the Roman Catholic Church must improve before he would agree to a papal visit.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who met with John Paul at the Vatican in November, has indicated he favors a visit by John Paul but would not pressure the Orthodox Church to agree.