Cardinal to Meet Russian Church Leader

Vatican City - A Vatican official left Saturday for Russia to meet with the head of the Russian church, the Vatican said. The trip comes amid attempts by the Holy See to improve relations with Russian Orthodox Christians.

Cardinal Renato Martino, who heads the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, was scheduled to meet Tuesday with Patriarch Alexy II and Metropolitan Kyrill, head of the Russian church's foreign relations department, Martino's office said.

The visit comes weeks after the Vatican's foreign minister, Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, returned from Moscow and said an upgrade in relations was not yet possible. During his visit, Lajolo met with Russian Orthodox Church officials, including Kyrill, but not with Alexy.

Pope Benedict XVI has pledged to make a "fundamental" commitment to healing strained ties with the Orthodox Church. His predecessor, John Paul II, long sought to visit Russia, but was blocked by the Russian Orthodox Church, which accused the Catholic Church of poaching converts after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The Vatican has rejected the allegations, saying it is only ministering to Russia's small Catholic community _ about 600,000 people in a country of about 144 million.