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Russian Patriarch To Visit Georgia To Foster Ties

Russian Patriarch Kirill I during a recent trip to Belarus
MOSCOW (Reuters) -- The head of the Russian Orthodox Church plans to travel to Georgia to try to encourage closer relations between the two countries, which fought a brief war in 2008, a senior Russian bishop said.

Russia has in recent weeks pledged to reopen a major border crossing with Georgia and allow several direct flights for the first time since Russian forces rebuffed an attack by Georgian forces on Georgia's breakaway South Ossetia region.

But the Kremlin has ruled out any talks with President Mikheil Saakashvili's administration.

Russia's Orthodox Church is officially independent of the state but maintains extremely close ties with the Kremlin, and often voices support of its policies.

The Georgian Church favors good ties with Russia and there have been some tensions between it and Saakashvili's pro-Western government, although the latter has been at pains to present a united front.

"You should expect that the Moscow patriarch [Kirill] will go to Georgia after he visits the Jerusalem patriarch," Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev said in an interview with Ekho Moskvy radio broadcast late on January 6. He did not say when either visit would take place.

"We cannot meddle in politics and dictate to political leaders...but we can do everything to protect and strengthen ties between the peoples of Russia and Georgia," he said.

The Russian and Georgian churches can make a "very weighty and significant contribution to the pacification of the situation," he said.

Last month the Kremlin invited a former Georgian Prime Minister and fierce critic of Saakashvili to Moscow for what Russian officials said was the highest level contact between the two countries since the war.

The Georgian government said a visit by Kirill would be meaningless if Moscow did not reduce its support for the rebel regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which Moscow recognizes as independent and which Tbilisi says have expelled Georgians.

"It's important to understand that these kinds of visits are not going to change anything in the political arena," Georgia's Minister for Reintegration Temur Iakobashvili told Reuters.

"Russia might try to attach a political dimension, but nothing can happen while Georgian lands are under occupation."