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Russia: Putin-Pope Meeting Promises More Form Than Substance

Prague, 5 November 2003 (RFE/RL)) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin and Pope John Paul II are scheduled to meet at the Vatican late today.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi reportedly arranged the audience, which comes a day before the EU-Russia summit in Rome. The meeting comes at a time when a number of difficult issues -- large and small -- are roiling relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church, two long-divided branches of Christianity.

John Allen, veteran Vatican correspondent for the authoritative U.S.-based "National Catholic Reporter," told RFE/RL that he expects the meeting to be friendly and polite but will amount to little of substance. "So, you know, my sense is that it will be a friendly encounter but one that not a great deal is going to turn on," he said.

One question that has arisen in virtually every public discussion of the pending meeting of Putin and the pope is whether the Russian president will bring John Paul the invitation he has long sought to visit Russia. But Aleksii II, the Russian Orthodox patriarch of Moscow and all Russia, is known to be opposed to a visit from the pope, and Putin has been disinclined to overrule the leader of his country's leading denomination.

One reason is historical. Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin in 1946 ordered 2,000 churches in western Ukraine to be confiscated from Uniate Catholics -- Roman Catholics who celebrate Eastern rites -- and turned over to the Orthodox Church. As the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s, the Uniates seized them back. This remains an open wound.

More recently, the Vatican created last year four new dioceses, church districts headed by bishops, in Russia without consulting the patriarchate. The Russian Orthodox Church has long accused Roman Catholics of seeking to tempt converts away from Russia's traditional religion.

Under such circumstances, Allen said, the question of a trip to Russia by the pope seems out of the question. "In fact, Putin was interviewed in the 'Corriera della Sera,' which is sort of 'The New York Times' of Italy [4 November] morning, and he said that, from his point of view, the question of the pope's trip [to Russia] is less important than the promotion of good relations among the various branches of Christianity -- that is, that Christian unity, and not so much the specific trip, is his interest. Which would suggest that he is kind of throwing in the towel on the idea of getting the pope to Russia."

So touchy are the relations between the papacy and the Moscow Patriarchate that Aleksii even has vetoed a proposed goodwill gesture in which the pope would stop off at Kazan, capital of the Russian republic of Tatarstan, to return a treasured Orthodox icon that has turned up in Vatican hands.

So, if a meeting attracting so much attention offers so little promise, why are the principals even bothering with it? Rome-based Vatican watcher Allen said he thinks Berlusconi sought the meeting to enhance his own image. "Berlusconi has long wanted to see himself as a bridge between Russia and the West," he said. "And, of course, being in the backyard of the Vatican, an important component of the West would be the Catholic Church and the papacy."

As for the pope and the Russian president, Allen thinks they are merely being polite. "And so, certainly the fact that Putin is going to come calling on the pope and will undoubtedly say some very nice things [will mean that] Berlusconi, I suppose, can claim that as something of a feather in his cap," he said.

The primary purpose of Putin's trip to Rome is tomorrow's summit with the European Union during Italy's turn in the EU presidency. He is scheduled for a working dinner with Berlusconi, to meet twice with Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi and to hold discussions with Italian business leaders.