Russian Orthodox Church patriarch says his meeting with pope possible if disputes solved

Moscow, Russia - The head of the Russian Orthodox Church held the door open for a possible meeting with Pope Benedict XVI provided the two churches make progress in tackling their disagreements, according to comments released Friday.

"If such a meeting took place - maybe in a third country - that would be a remarkable historic event," Alexy II said when asked about prospects for a papal visit to Russia in an interview with French Paris Match magazine posted Friday on the Moscow Patriarchate's Web site.

While Alexy reaffirmed his stance that his meeting with the pope hinged on progress in solving longtime conflicts between the two churches, the statement marked a change of tone reflecting warmer ties between the two churches which split in the Great Schism of 1054.

"The Catholics and the Orthodox must get closer," Alexy said in the Paris Match interview. "We have common interests and that's encouraging." 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.

Alexy has said a papal visit would only be possible after the Catholic Church stops allegedly seeking converts in Russia and discriminating against the Orthodox in western Ukraine.

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

Alexy said in the Paris Match interview that a meeting with the pope should "turn a new page in relations and not be just a protocol event in front for TV cameras to pretend that we don't have problems while in fact we do."

"We need to overcome these problems before we meet," he said. But he added that the Orthodox and the Catholics should cooperate more closely in protecting traditional Christian values. "Excessively broad views of modern Protestantism are rooted in the spiritual permissiveness that causes concern," Alexy said in the interview.

"That permissiveness reigns in the Western secular society where liberal standards are being enforced everywhere - in politics, social life and even religious sphere."

He said that the two churches had laid the foundation for closer joint action in defending spiritual values at several conferences this year.

"Our two churches, the Catholic and the Orthodox, must constructively form a joint front and cooperate in defending and upholding traditional Christian values."