Vatican Envoy, Orthodox Leaders to Meet

Moscow, Russia - A top Vatican envoy was in Moscow Tuesday for sensitive talks to pursue Pope Benedict XVI's drive for better relations with the Russian Orthodox Church.

Benedict's predecessor, Pope John Paul II, never fulfilled his dream of visiting Russia after the 1991 collapse of Communism because of disputes between the two churches.

Cardinal Walter Kasper, who heads the Vatican's office for relations with other Christians, arrived late Monday to spend three days in Moscow. He is set to meet with Metropolitan Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church's foreign relations department.

Kasper will continue the dialogue with Orthodox leaders, the Vatican said in a brief statement.

The Moscow Patriarchate said Kirill and Kasper will "discuss the prospects for cooperation between the two churches and problems which exist between them." It said Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Alexy II will not meet Kasper.

Alexy has said in the past that a papal visit hinged on ending what the Russian Orthodox Church described as Catholic poaching for converts in Russia and other ex-Soviet lands and discrimination against Orthodox in western Ukraine.

The Vatican has rejected the Orthodox accusations of proselytizing. It said it was only ministering to Russia's tiny Catholic community — about 600,000 people, less than 1 percent of the country's 144 million. The Russian Orthodox Church claims about two-thirds of the population as followers.

Following Benedict's installation in April, Alexy said his visit to Russia would be possible only after the two churches resolve their longtime differences.

"There cannot be a visit for the sake of a visit. There cannot be a meeting purely for television cameras," Alexy said.

During one of Kasper's previous visits to Russia, the two churches set up a working group to address the controversy between the churches, but the panel has made no visible progress toward potential unity between the two branches of Christianity, split between east and west in 1054.