Russian Patriarch Won't Meet Vatican Envoy

Moscow, Russia - The Russian Orthodox patriarch canceled a meeting Tuesday with a high-ranking Vatican envoy whose trip to Russia was part of the Holy See's efforts to improve relations between the two churches.

Patriarch Alexy II's meeting with Cardinal Renato Martino, who heads the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, was canceled for ``technical reasons,'' said Father Vsevolod Chaplin, a deputy head of the Russian Orthodox Church's foreign relations department.

Chaplin said that Martino's meeting with the department's head, Metropolitan Kirill, scheduled for later Tuesday, was still on.

He told The Associated Press the meeting will focus on social issues where the churches share common ground.

``Our positions on these issues are very close,'' Chaplin said. ``We have similar views and cooperate on such issues as social justice, peacemaking, social ethics, gender problems and reforms of international organizations.''

Chaplin said that Kirill and Martino were also likely to discuss disputes between the churches. ``Any Orthodox-Catholic meeting may touch on problems in bilateral ties,'' he said.

Martino's visit comes only weeks after the Vatican's foreign minister, Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, said after returning from Moscow that better relations were not yet possible.

Lajolo met with Russian Orthodox Church officials including Kyrill, but did not meet with Alexy.

Pope Benedict XVI has pledged to make healing strained ties with the Orthodox Church a ``fundamental'' commitment.

Benedict's predecessor, John Paul II, never fulfilled his dream of visiting Russia following the 1991 Soviet collapse because of disputes between the two churches, which have been split since the Great Schism of 1054.

Alexy has ruled out a papal visit, accusing the Catholic Church of proselytizing in Russia.

The Vatican says it is only ministering to Russia's tiny Catholic community - about 600,000 people in a country of about 144 million.

The Russian Orthodox Church, which claims two-thirds of the country's population as well as millions in neighboring countries as followers, is the largest in the Orthodox world.