Putin Defends Choice to Keep Pope out in the Cold

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Russian President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday that Pope John Paul could visit Moscow "one second" after the Vatican and the Russian Orthodox Church resolved their differences.

Putin, who met the Polish pope for the first time Monday, was apparently responding to negative Italian media reaction to his decision not to renew an invitation for the Pope to make a historic trip.

Rome's La Repubblica newspaper used the Russian word for "no" in its banner headline: "Pope to Moscow, Putin's Nyet."

La Repubblica, which is not always kind to the Pope, called Putin's decision "an affront" and another Rome newspaper, Il Messaggero, said Putin had "disappointed" the aging pontiff.

While the decision surprised some and deflated expectations, it appeared to be more of a move to keep the powerful Orthodox Church happy than the start of a new chill in the Kremlin's relations with the Vatican.

The pontiff has a burning desire to visit Russia but would need an invitation from Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexiy II. The churches have been divided since the Great Schism split Christianity into Eastern and Western branches in 1054.

"I haven't imposed a 'diktat' (against a Papal visit)," Putin told reporters at a briefing for Italian media. He added that a papal trip could take place "one second after" the problems between the two churches were resolved.

"The visit will happen as soon as the discussions in progress are back on track," he said.

Russia's Interfax news agency quoted Putin as saying that the Russian leadership "will do its utmost to promote dialogue between the Churches."

Putin, whose deadpan face at the Vatican was a marked contrast to the broad smiles of his predecessors Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, indicated he wanted to keep an even keel in the stormy waters of inter-religious relations.

"We know there is a debate between the Russian Orthodox and Catholic Church," he told reporters in Milan. "We try not to interfere. We know discussions are positive. We are interested in seeing these issues resolved."

CATHOLIC-ORTHODOX TIES STILL STRAINED

"The pope is a wise and intelligent man. The question of his visit was never discussed (during Monday's audience)," Putin said, indicating timing may have been behind the decision not to actively renew invitations made by Gorbachev and Yeltsin.

Although the Vatican said it considered past invitations by Putin's predecessors still valid, the absence of a clear reference to an invitation deflated hopes that Putin's visit would be a turning point leading to a trip.

Relations between the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches have been strained since the end of the Cold War and the lack of a renewed invitation indicated many problems remain.

Orthodox leaders have accused Catholics of attempting to use new-found freedoms in the former Soviet Union to woo believers. The Vatican has rejected the accusations.

Alexiy was quoted Sunday as saying he did not rule out an eventual meeting with the pope but much work had to be done.

In Moscow, a representative of the Russian Orthodox Church's Moscow patriarchate, father Vsevolod Chaplin, told Interfax that Putin's decision not to invite the pope to Russia for the moment was a "wise and responsible move."

Chaplin repeated statements by Patriarch Alexiy that a Papal visit was not intended for show, but could only take place under conditions of improved relations between the two churches.

He cited key problems to be resolved, including actions by Byzantine Rite Catholics, supported by local authorities, in seizing property of Orthodox parishes in western Ukraine -- now left without buildings in which to worship.

"We expect an improvement in this situation," Chaplin said. "As long as it remains as it is, the time for embraces with the Roman Catholic church is still to come."

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