The increasing visibility of the Roman Catholic church in Russia is posing a challenge to the traditionally Orthodox country amid signs of an improving relationship between Moscow and the Vatican.

A May 28 parade through Russia's capital city by hundreds of Catholics with banners and crucifixes -- part of the church's millenarian celebration -- elicited mixed reviews from Muscovites. "For some it was a direct challenge to the Orthodox, since prior to that only Russian Orthodox were allowed religious processions in Moscow," said Alexander Soldatov, religion correspondent for the daily English-language Moscow News. "For others it's a sign of improving Russia's religious liberties policy."

A new Russian law on religion has raised tensions because it appears to favor the Orthodox Church over other Christian confessions. The Vatican, the United States, and human rights groups have branded the law discriminatory. The Orthodox Church, however, undergoing a revival after decades of persecution, resents what it sees as efforts to poach members from congregations in Russia and other ex-Soviet republics. Ukraine has been an especially sore spot, with its more than 5 million eastern-rite Catholics.

Proselytizing, perhaps more than any other issue, has stood in the way of a papal visit to Russia. During his 21-year pontificate, John Paul II has made 92 journeys outside Italy to 123 countries, but never to Russia. Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II has said there is no point in his meeting the pope until issues such as proselytizing have been resolved. A planned meeting in Austria in 1997 collapsed after the Orthodox leader backed out. Since then, John Paul has traveled to two traditionally Orthodox countries, Romania and Georgia. They were the first papal visits to Orthodox nations since the "Great Schism" into Eastern and Western Christianity in 1054.

Yet recently Alexy has toned down considerably his anti-Catholic rhetoric and made significant overtures to the Vatican. On May 18 he sent a message to John Paul congratulating the pope on his 80th birthday, and calling for better ties between their rival churches in the third Christian millennium. "Your long service as head of the Roman Catholic Church has brought you well-deserved recognition among the Christians of many countries," Alexy wrote to the pope. "I express the hope that the problems existing between our churches can be successfully overcome through joint efforts and that the new millennium will become a time for healing the rifts and divisions between the churches of the East and the West."