Russian Orthodox patriarch hopes to mend Vatican rift

Vatican City - The leader of the Russian Orthodox Church has told Pope Benedict XVI that he hopes for a "rapid resolution" of ongoing problems that divide the Catholic and Orthodox churches, according to a letter released Friday by the Vatican.

Patriarch Alexy II also said in the Feb. 22 letter to the pope that he was convinced that defending Christian values in contemporary society should be a priority for both churches.

"I hope that the rapid resolution of outstanding problems between our two Churches will also contribute to this end," Alexy wrote in thanking the pope for a letter he sent to mark the patriarch's birthday.

Benedict, who has pledged to make healing strained ties with the Orthodox Church a "fundamental" commitment, in his letter repeated his call for the two churches to improve their relationship.

The pope's predecessor, John Paul II, never fulfilled his dream of visiting Russia after 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.