Putin Pays Visit to John Paul II

By Sarah Delaney Special to The Washington Post Tuesday , June 6, 2000 ; A21

VATICAN CITY, June 5 -- Russian President Vladimir Putin, making his first official foreign visit since his inauguration last month, paid a formal call on Pope John Paul II today but failed to extend an anticipated formal invitation to the pope to visit Russia. Such a trip is a goal of the 80-year-old pontiff, but it has been stymied by centuries-old divisions between the Vatican and the Russian Orthodox Church.

In a 30-minute visit described as "cordial and relaxed" by Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls, Putin, a former KGB operative, told John Paul that "it was my decision to come. For me this is a very significant visit."

Earlier today, the newly elected Russian leader met with Italian Prime Minister Giuliano Amato, discussing, among other things, a Russian proposal for a European regional missile defense system that Putin had raised with President Clinton during their weekend summit in Moscow. Afterward, Putin met with Italian President Carlo Ciampi; on Tuesday, he is to confer in Milan with local authorities and leading industrialists, including Gianni Agnelli, former chairman of the Fiat auto company.

Putin was escorted into the papal apartments, 10 minutes late, by members of the Swiss Guard, the pope's security service. Following their private meeting--conducted in Russian and Italian with the aid of interpreters--they were joined by Vatican Secretary of State Angelo Sodano, Vatican Foreign Minister Jean-Louis Tauran and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov.

Navarro-Valls said in a brief statement that Putin had expressed appreciation for the "particularly important" role of the Vatican in the integration of Eastern and Western Europe and that the pope and the Russian leader had spoken about "disarmament and the international situation." Putin's effort to include Russia in the rest of Europe is "new and ambitious," Navarro-Valls said.

The two men exchanged gifts, Navarro-Valls said. Putin gave the pope a book of Kremlin photographs; John Paul gave Putin a bas relief of saints Peter and Paul.

Navarro-Valls told reporters after the meeting that dialogue concerning a papal visit to Russia is underway between the Vatican and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II. The two sects have been separate since the Catholic Church broke into Roman and Orthodox branches in 1054, and the end of the Cold War has not helped improve relations.

But Vatican hopes for a thaw were encouraged Sunday when Alexy said he would not rule out a meeting. "Such a meeting shouldn't just happen before the television cameras," Alexy said.

But unresolved problems need to be worked out first, he said. "It's necessary that it be well prepared for and bring about concrete results," he told the Interfax news agency in Moscow. The Russian Orthodox Church objects particularly to what it views as Roman Catholic proselytizing among Orthodox believers.

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