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ROME NOTES: Putin and the Pope; Iraq Revisited; A Cardinal Calls

11/15/2003 - 6:00 AM PST

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Russian Leader's Visit Lifts Hopes

By Delia Gallagher

ROME, NOV. 14, 2003 (Zenit) - Russian President Vladimir Putin's visit to Pope John Paul II on Nov. 5 was a sign of hope for Catholic-Orthodox relations, according to Vatican and Russian officials.

Putin met for 45 minutes with the Pope, their longest meeting so far. During the meeting, the Putin kissed the icon of Kazan and told the Holy Father that he would talk to Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II upon his return.

In the midst of internal political difficulties and international skepticism that Putin's Russia is returning to its authoritarian past, with the arrest of prominent businessmen, the Russian president at the Vatican presented himself as a willing broker in the Vatican's efforts at reconciliation with the Orthodox Church.

On the eve of his visit with the Pope, Putin told the Italian daily Corriere della Sera, "My personal position is that it's important to make every effort in favor of unity among the various Christian confessions. ... I consider it my objective no so much making it possible for the Pope to come to Russia, as much as favoring Christian unity with every opportune step."

In September, Putin told the Associated Press in Moscow that a papal visit to Russia would be a "right step," one that he hoped would be taken "sooner rather than later."

Why has Putin suddenly put himself in the middle of the standoff between the Orthodox patriarchate and the Vatican?

"Russia is a nation looking for stability," said an official of the Russian representative to the Holy See (the equivalent of an ambassador). "We are looking for values which we lost after the 1917 Revolution and again after the values of Communism."

"President Putin wants to refind those roots in the Christian values of Russia; 85% of the country is Christian," the official said.

"He also wants to assure Russia's place on the international scene," the official continued. "Russia needs to cooperate with all the world's religions: Christianity, Judaism, Islam. When he traveled to Malaysia, Putin said, 'Russia is Muslim country,' meaning we have 20% Muslims in our country."

While those at the Vatican may have welcomed Putin's good will, it seems unlikely that it will move those in Moscow. Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad commented last month in an interview with 30 Days magazine on politicians' "mediation" in Church affairs.

Referring to Italian President Berlusconi's offer to assist in reconciliation, Metropolitan Kirill said: "One can note that the Russian authorities leave to the Churches the responsibility to find a solution to their differences. I think that the situation is the same in Italy. The Russian Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church are not representatives of two states in conflict."

He continued: "We have channels of communication that function very well and have never been interrupted at the official level. But when it comes to fulfilling reciprocal obligations, unfortunately we find that the Catholic party plays a double game: It says one thing but does another in practice. It does not seem to me that the solution to the existing problems depends on the participation of either state in the process of negotiation, but the sincere willingness of the Catholics to overcome these problems."

The Vatican sees President Putin's "mediation" in a different light.

"It is an encouraging sign," one official told me. "It is true that President Putin may not be able to do much, but all help should be welcomed."

"There is a great difference in mentality," another Vatican official told me. "Many people don't realize that the Catholic Church actually gives money to the Orthodox, through Aid to the Church in Need and other such structures. But the Orthodox see this and think, 'Who knows what they want?'"

"The Catholic Church cannot substitute the Orthodox Church," continued the prelate. "We do not want to."

And what about the Russian people? How was Putin's visit seen at home? I asked a representative of the Russian government.

"On all three of the [state-owned] television channels," he told me, "they showed three images of the visit. The first was the Swiss Guards with their colorful uniforms, then the Pope showing Putin the icon of Kazan, and finally Putin shaking the Pope's hand."

"The news did not offer any commentary on the visit," the official continued. "They spoke more about the president's meeting with the Italian government and the possibility of cooperating with the EU, which many Russians are interested in."

The Pope, too, is interested that Russians feel themselves a part of modern Europe. Cardinal Paul Poupard in 30 Days magazine recalls the Pope's instructions to him in 1991, when ...

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