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Meeting between Pope and Putin said to have bettered relations

Vladimir Putin’s days as a secret service officer in the Soviet KGB came in handy when he met Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican to discuss world issues and strained relations between the church in Rome and the Russian Orthodox Church.

Benedict met Russian President Putin for the first time officially on 13 March. During their 25-minute one-on-one meeting they were able to converse easily in the Pope’s native German, which Putin had often used when he served as an intelligence officer in the former East Germany.

The Interfax news agency quoted a Russian foreign ministry spokesperson saying that President Putin had sent greetings to the pontiff from the Russian Patriarch Aleksei II after the meeting.

Italian newspaper reports said the meeting helped improve relations between the Holy See and Russia, and enhanced the chances of a future meeting between a Roman pontiff and a Moscow patriarch. Some commentators had written that such a meeting could take place in Bari, southern Italy, the Adriatic city where lie the remains of Nicholas, a much revered saint in Russia.

"The meeting took place in a very positive atmosphere," said an official Vatican communiqué. "Some bilateral topics with shared interest were examined, pertaining to the relations between the Catholic and the Orthodox Churches." Other issues discussed included international questions, particularly the situation in the Middle East.

The Milan newspaper Corriere della Sera carried a headline on 14 March: "On the horizon, relations between Catholics and Orthodox".

In the past the Russian Orthodox Church, which is seen as having increasingly close ties with the government in Moscow, has been in property disputes with the church in Rome, and has also accused Catholics of engaging in proselytising in Russia. The Vatican has strongly rejected charges of vigorously converting Russians, and said that it is only ministering to a tiny Catholic minority of about 600 000 in a country with 143 million people.

As part of the warming relations, Italy said it was returning to Russia the ownership of a Russian Orthodox Church in Bari as a gesture aimed at improving Catholic-Orthodox relations. "This is an important gesture," said Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi, who announced the decision during a joint news conference with Putin.

(c) Ecumenical News International