Monday June 5 4:32 PM ET

Putin Visit Deflates Hopes of Papal Trip to Russia

By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope John Paul received Russian President Vladimir Putin Monday but there was no reference to a possible papal trip to Moscow, underscoring continuing problems between the Vatican and the Russian Orthodox Church.

Although Vatican officials said they 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 that led to a historic trip.

The Vatican also said Putin had asked for the Holy See's help in Moscow's efforts to integrate Russia into Europe.

The pope and Putin, making his first trip abroad since his inauguration last month, held 30 minutes of talks assisted by interpreters.

A Vatican statement said the two discussed the role of the Holy See and Russia in the process of integration between East and West and that Putin told the Pope he believed the Vatican's role was ``particularly important'' in the process.

The statement said they also talked about ``disarmament and the international situation.''

Asked about the significance of the lack of any reference to a renewed invitation, Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said the Holy See considered past invitations still valid.

``The invitation is there and it still stands,'' Navarro-Valls said. ``When a door is open, it remains open until it is closed and it had not been closed.''

The 80-year-old pope is said to have a burning desire to visit Russia and has been invited by previous Russian leaders but would also need an invitation from Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexiy II.

Lack Of Renewed Invitation Underscores Difficulties

Relations between the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches have been strained since the end of the Cold War.

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.

The Pope was first invited to visit Russia by former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and the invitation was renewed by President Boris Yeltsin.

The Pope has already visited two predominantly Orthodox countries -- Romania and the former Soviet republic of Georgia.

A small group of journalists allowed in to the private papal study to witness the start of the meeting between Putin and the Pope reported that the Pontiff said:

``I'm very happy to receive you here at the Vatican at the beginning of your presidential mandate.''

Putin responded: ``It was my decision. For me this visit is very significant.''

Later, at a picture-taking session, Putin told the Pope: ``I thank you for the collaboration between the Holy See and Russia in international relations for world peace.''

Navarro-Valls said the atmosphere at the talks, the first meeting between the two men, was ``very cordial.'' Putin had arrived about 20 minutes late for the meeting after his earlier joint news conference with Italian Prime Minister Giuliano Amato ran overtime.

Putin gave the Pope a gift of a book on the restoration of the Kremlin, which contains some of Russia's greatest religious treasures.

Putin, a former KGB spy, was baptized as an infant into the Orthodox Church, wears a crucifix given to him by his mother and attends important Church celebrations.