Russia's foreign minister said Wednesday that Moscow would be willing to help arrange a high-level meeting that could lead to the first visit by a pope to his country.
Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov explained that his government could lay the ground work for such a meeting between Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi and the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church aimed at paving the way for the long-sought visit by Pope John Paul II.
The pontiff has repeatedly expressed his desire to visit Russia as parts of his efforts to promote greater Christian unity. But his plans have been thwarted by opposition from the Orthodox Church, including a refusal by Alexy to meet with pope even on neutral ground.
Berlusconi said last month the Vatican had asked him to arrange the meeting with Patriarch Alexy II a possibility the Italian later discussed with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
"If the desire of a meeting with Patriarch Alexy II is expressed, then in this case this request will be transmitted to the Patriarchate and negotiated through diplomatic channels," Ivanov said after talks in Rome with his Italian counterpart Franco Frattini.
Ivanov, on a two-day visit to Italy, said he had a phone conversation with Berlusconi on Tuesday, but that the issue did not come up.
Berlusconi is scheduled to meet with Putin in St. Petersburg, Russia at the end of the month. It was not clear whether the Italian leader would seek to meet Alexy II during that visit.
Berlusconi's spokesman was not immediately available for comment.
The Vatican is seeking agreement for a stopover by the pope in Russia en route to a pilgrimage in Mongolia in August.
Relations between the Vatican and the Russian Orthodox Church have been badly strained by Russian accusations that the Roman Catholic Church is trying to gain converts in traditionally Orthodox lands in the former Soviet Union.
The Roman Catholic Church contends it has a moral right to be active in Russia, which had Roman Catholic communities made up mostly of ethnic Germans and Poles before the 1917 Revolution.