Pope in rare meeting with Russian Orthodox cleric

Vatican City - Pope Benedict held a rare meeting on Friday with a senior cleric from the Russian Orthodox Church in a bid to improve often strained relations.

Metropolitan Kirill, the head of external relations for the Moscow Patriarchate, was expected to speak with reporters later on Friday. The Vatican did not immediately release any details about the closed-door meeting.

The Russian Orthodox Church split from Rome in the Great Schism of 1054. It had chilly relations with Benedict's predecessor, Pope John Paul II -- a Pole who had campaigned against the atrocities of communism and sought in vain to visit post-communist Russia.

Since Benedict's election in 2005, relations have improved and Vatican officials have said they are working towards an eventual meeting between the Pontiff and Russian Patriarch Alexiy II.


Kirill recently told Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano "the big chill is over and it's thawing time" for ties. He said the two churches share the same spiritual and moral problems and should work together.

But problems remain. Kirill recently called on the Vatican to reverse a 2002 decision to create new Catholic diocese in Russia, something it considers to be an infringement on the Russian church's local territory and power.

The Russians also walked out of a key Catholic-Orthodox meeting of theologians earlier this year that produced a document with other Orthodox churches that the Vatican hailed as a step on the long road toward reconciliation.

In a joint declaration, the theologians agreed the Pope held the highest rank in the unified Church before the 1054 schism -- a statement that could allow Catholic and Orthodox worshippers to work more closely. It also made clear neither side yet agreed on what power came with that rank.

Still, the Russian Orthodox Church is the largest and most influential in worldwide Orthodoxy, which is organised under national churches totalling some 220 million members.

The Vatican, which leads the world's 1.1 billion Roman Catholics, has said dialogue must include the Russians.