Russian Patriarch sets criteria for pope

A long-desired trip by Pope John Paul II to Russia could only occur if the Vatican renounces efforts to expand Rome-affiliated churches in traditional Christian Orthodox areas, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church said.

The condition set by Patriarch Alexy II - contained Tuesday in a reply to questions from The Associated Press - reinforces previous statements and suggests Russian Orthodox leaders have not been swayed by recent Vatican overtures that have included the return of an important icon and the relics of two Orthodox saints.

Before a papal visit to Russia can be considered, "it is essential to renounce the proselytism which is being carried out ... by numerous representatives of the Catholic clergy," Alexy wrote in response to the AP's questions.

Eastern Rite churches - which retain Orthodox traditions but are loyal to the Vatican - are one of the thorniest issues blocking attempts to heal the nearly 1,000-year-old division between the world's 1 billion Roman Catholics and more than 200 million Orthodox.

The churches have grown since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 and many senior Orthodox clergy accuse the Vatican of trying to encroach on historic Orthodox lands. Alexy said the Eastern Rite churches "only deepen the divisions between Orthodox and Catholics."

But the pope has pushed ahead with attempts to reach out to Orthodox. He has made a series of history-making trips into mostly Orthodox nations since the late 1990s and conducted joint worship with the world's Orthodox spiritual leader, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I.

Yet Russia, the most populous Orthodox nation, has remained closed to the ailing, 84-year-old pontiff, who has sharply cut back on his travels in recent years.

Alexy offered little hope the door could open. Beside a demand for a Vatican declaration on its Eastern Rite policies, Alexy stressed the importance to "normalize" the church disputes in Ukraine, where the pope visited in 2001.

The Russian Orthodox Church is angered by possible moves by the Vatican to give patriarchate status to Greek Catholics, an Eastern Rite church that has expanded into traditionally Orthodox eastern and southern Ukraine.

Alexy called it part of "unfriendly activities toward the Russian Orthodox Church."

"The concrete problems which stand between us and complicate the Orthodox-Catholic dialogue ought to be discussed and resolved in practice," he wrote.

But he welcomed the latest Vatican acts as a possible "sign of readiness" to advance discussions.

In August, the Vatican sent back to Moscow an 18th-century replica of the Mother of God of Kazan icon, a work that first appeared in the Volga River city of Kazan in 1579 and is revered by many Russian believers. The copy of the icon was smuggled to the West after the 1917 Russian Revolution and had hung in the pope's private chapel.

In November, the Vatican returned the relics of two 4th-century Orthodox saints to Istanbul, the former Byzantine capital, then called Constantinople, and the seat of the Orthodox ecumenical patriarch.