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Russia: Why Putin Is Going To The Vatican

President Putin is an Orthodox Christian (epa) March 13, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- On a recent trip to Jordan, Russian President Vladimir Putin asked his host, King Abdullah II, if he could pray on the banks of the Jordan River.

The king, seeing that Putin didn't have a decent place to pray, granted him a hectare of land on the river bank. Upon his return to Moscow, Putin handed over the land to the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Aleksy II.

Putin may well be hoping for a similar gesture as he visits the Vatican today amid improving relations between the Catholic and Orthodox churches.

The Russian president has already visited the Vatican three times, but this will be his first meeting with Pope Benedict XVI.

As a Vatican cardinal, Benedict was responsible for helping to set up a meeting of John Paul II and Aleksy. The meeting never took place due to "insurmountable differences" between the two sides.

Troubled Ties

Historical animosity between the two churches runs deep. The Orthodox Church has accused the Vatican of aggressive proselytizing in Russia. The Catholic Church has denied the accusations and has expressed concern over the treatment of Russia's Catholic minority. The two churches have also argued over ecclesiastical property in Ukraine.

"Moscow is the 'third Rome,' and due to the lack of a 'second Rome,' relations with the 'first Rome' are very important to us."

Putin, as a devout believer, has followed the Orthodox Church's line. The Russian president did not invite former Pope John Paul to visit Russia, as his predecessors Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin had done.

The Russian Orthodox Church, with the help of its supporters in the Kremlin and Duma, has managed to codify legislation that denoted Russian Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism as Russia's national confessions. Catholicism received the status of a "guest confession."

Something In Common

But some observers have suggested that there is a greater chance for reconciliation with Pope Benedict.

First, Russia enjoys better relations with Germany, the country of the new pope's birth, than it does with the Poland of John Paul.

President Putin praying at the Jordan River on February 13 (TASS)

Second, Putin, who lived in East Germany in the 1980s, speaks fluent German. Today's talks will reportedly be conducted in German.

The meeting is expected to concentrate on global issues, such as the Middle East, religious extremism, and global terrorism. Putin is also expected to discuss with the pope the possible return of a historic Russian church in the southern Italian city of Bari. Putin plans to pray in the church, which was built by Russia in 1913, on March 14.

Also up for discussion will be a possible meeting between Benedict and the Russian patriarch. Such a meeting, most likely on neutral territory, has been on the agenda for years, but, because of poor relations, has never been finalized.

Shared Fears

Despite the churches' differences, they have a lot in common. Both feel threatened by what they see as rampant secularism and the spread of the Islamic faith.

Commenting recently on Putin's visit, the Russian Orthodox Church's envoy to European institutions, Bishop Hilarion of Vienna and Austria said: "There is growing understanding that Catholics and Russian Orthodox [believers] face common challenges like militant secularism and relativism, atheism, and moral dissipation."

Putin has been adept at using the Orthodox Church for his own political ends. Some observers have suggested that he sees the Orthodox Church as the ideological arm of the Kremlin.

Using The Church

The Orthodox Church has often touted the Kremlin's line, for example attacking the European Union's Energy Charter.

And with the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad expected to officially reunite on May 17 after decades of schism, Putin is being seen as the "unifier of the church."

In the last year, Putin has also made efforts to mobilize the international religious community to support his political line.

In July 2006, ahead of Group of Eight (G8) summit in St. Petersburg, Putin convened the World Religious Summit in Moscow, which brought together hundreds of clerics from around the world.

Or as Channel One commentator Pyotr Tolstoy said recently, "Moscow is the 'third Rome'" and due to the lack of a "second Rome," "relations with the 'first Rome' are very important to us."

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