Italy returns church in Adriatic city of Bari to Russia

Bari, Italy - Italy is returning to Russia the ownership of a Russian Orthodox Church in the Adriatic city of Bari — a friendly gesture toward Moscow aimed at improving relations between the two Christian churches, city officials said.

"This is an important gesture," said Premier Romano Prodi, announcing the decision Wednesday during a joint news conference with visiting Russian President Vladimir Putin. Prodi called it a gesture of courtesy "to our Russian friends."

The church was built in the early 20th century to welcome Russian pilgrims who traveled to Bari to pray near the relics of St. Nicholas of Myra. The fourth-century saint is popular among both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians, and his remains are kept in the crypt of the nearby Catholic Basilica of St. Nicholas, where Orthodox rites also are celebrated.

The Russian church, also named after St. Nicholas, became the property of the city of Bari in 1937 as the number of Russian Orthodox pilgrims dwindled following the Russian revolution. Part of it houses city offices, said Bari's mayor, Michele Emiliano.

"For the Russians Bari is like Assisi for the Italians," Emiliano said, referring to the Umbrian city that is the birthplace of St. Francis. St. Nicholas is revered by many throughout Russia and is also patron saint of Bari.

The mayor said that Pope Benedict XVI had urged local authorities to work to make Bari a bridge between the Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches.

"This act ... helps grant the wishes of Benedict XVI," Emiliano said.

The Italian government made donation of the church possible by agreeing to cede to barracks that can house Bari's city offices, the mayor said.

"This is a present to the Russians, and it will cost them nothing," Emiliano said.

Putin, with a Russian delegation, was in Bari for talks with Prodi and Italian officials. The Russian leader visited the church Wednesday evening, lit a candle and kissed an icon of St. Nicholas.

He had met with Pope Benedict XVI on Tuesday — the highest-level Kremlin-Vatican talks in more than three years — focusing on ways of easing tension between Catholics and Orthodox Christians.

The Russian church accuses Roman Catholics of improperly seeking converts in areas that traditionally would be Russian Orthodox. The Vatican has rejected the proselytizing accusations, saying it is only ministering to Russia's tiny Catholic community of about 600,000 people in a country of 144 million.

Long-running property disputes between the churches have also put them at odds.

Such tension has stood in the way of a papal visit to Russia. The late Pope John Paul II's hopes of going to Moscow were thwarted by lack of agreement with the Orthodox Church leadership.

"I know that the Patriarch of Moscow wishes to develop friendly relations between the two sister-churches," Putin said during the news conference. The Russian government "will do all it can to favor dialogue between the two churches."