Russian Patriarch Congratulates Pope

Moscow, Russia - Russia's Orthodox Church eyed the new pope with mixture of hope and concern, wary that relations between two of the world's largest Christian communities could worsen under his watch.

Patriarch Alexy II congratulated Pope Benedict XVI on Wednesday and expressed his wish for a fruitful dialogue between the two churches, which remain tense amid Russian allegations of Catholic poaching of Orthodox believers.

After a millennium of animosity and mistrust, church leaders say future relations will depend on whether the new pontiff addresses the proselytizing problems that have strained ties.

"We are at this moment very, very open to new approaches in our relations, to any ideas which will help us to return to the golden age of Orthodox-Catholic relations," said Father Vsevolod Chaplin, who is in charge of foreign relations for the Moscow Patriarchate.

The late John Paul II wanted to promote greater unity between the churches some 1,000 years after the Great Schism divided Christianity into eastern and western branches. Following the Soviet collapse, antagonism rose as Roman Catholics tried to reassert their presence, even as the Russian church was working to restore the clout it had lost under Communist atheist rule.

Alexander Ogorodnikov, a religion expert and editor of an Orthodox magazine, said that judging by his past, Benedict may lack the zeal John Paul had for closer ties. As a cardinal, Joseph Ratzinger soured relations with the Russian Patriarchate by backing a move to stop referring to the Orthodox branch of Christianity as a "sister Church" — since Roman Catholics see Rome as the "mother" church.

"There may even be a certain cooling of relations," Ogorodnikov said.

Since the collapse of communism, the Orthodox have worked to restore deteriorating churches and resuscitate dormant congregations, while the Roman Catholics reclaimed some of their pre-revolutionary churches and dispatched foreign priests to minister to parishioners.

The advances infuriated the Russian church and Alexy II firmly objected to a papal visit. President Vladimir Putin had said he favored a visit by the pope, but didn't press the issue.

The frayed ties make it unlikely that Benedict will visit Russia any time soon or fulfill John Paul's ultimate goal — healing the Great Schism of 1054. The Orthodox Church does not recognize papal authority.

"I don't think unity in theological terms is achievable in the foreseeable future," Chaplin told Associated Press Television News. "I think it should not be the unity on the conditions of the bigger partner, it should be and can be only unity on the basis of the faith, of the early undivided church from which, I am afraid, many people in the Roman Catholic church have gone a little bit away."

While Ogorodnikov predicted the new pope would adopt an "even tone" in his relations with the Orthodox Church, he noted that Ratzinger took the name Benedict — after the Italian Pontiff Benedict XV known for his dream of reuniting with Orthodox Christians — may be seen as a sign that he will pursue that course.

"The pope realizes that today the Catholic Church's strategic partner is the Orthodox Church and he will strive for dialogue and cooperation," Ogorodnikov said.