Pope's first visit to Russia a step "closer"

Vatican City  - The possibility of a visit by Pope Benedict XVI to Russia has moved "a little bit closer" following talks between Vatican representatives and the Russian Orthodox Church's top envoy, a Vatican official said Thursday.

Cardinal Walter Kasper, who heads the Vatican's department on Christian unity, was commenting on Orthodox Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev's current visit to Rome.

Hilarion, who is in charge of the Russian Orthodox Church's external affairs, is scheduled to meet Pope Benedict XVI on Friday.

Kasper said his talks with Hilarion on Thursday "have shown that a new situation exists between the Catholic Church and the Moscow Patriarchate."

"We have overcome all the tensions that have existed in past years and relations are now normal and tranquil, as well as being positive and constructive," Kasper told Vatican Radio.

Hilarion was appointed to his current position by the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Moscow Patriarch Kirill I, who was enthroned earlier this year following the death of his predecessor Alexy II in December 2008.

Under Kirill, the Russian Orthodox Church began a bitter dispute with the Vatican over what it said were attempts by the Catholic Church to seek converts in Russian territory.

The tussle has prevented both the late John Paul II and his successor, Benedict, from visiting Russia as the Vatican has said such a trip would only take place in accordance with the wishes of the Russian Orthodox Church. Kasper said talks with Hilarion mostly focused on the theological differences that can be traced to the Great Schism of 1054 when the Eastern and Western Churches split, primarily over the issue of papal authority.

A visit by Benedict to Russia remained "a marginal point" in discussions since Kirill first needs time to visit all the Orthodox Patriarchates, Kasper said.

However, Kirill "does not reject a meeting with the pope," even if this will likely first take place "not in Moscow nor in Rome, but in a third location," Kasper said.(dpa)

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