Cardinal Kasper to Visit Russian Patriarchate

Trip Coming at Key Moment in Moscow-Rome Relations

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VATICAN CITY, FEB. 1, 2002 ( Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, will travel to Moscow from Feb. 21-22, authorized Vatican sources disclosed.

The German cardinal will meet Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II and Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, who is responsible for the patriarchate´s international relations.

Vatican sources say the visit is routine, as it is normal for the president of the pontifical council for ecumenism to meet with Orthodox patriarchs. However, the meeting is taking place at a key moment.

In a gesture that broke with recent tradition, Alexy II sent a delegation led by patriarchal Vicar and Metropolitan Pitirim to the religious leaders´ Day of Prayer for Peace, held in Assisi on Jan. 24.

According to Orthodox sources, John Paul II relaunched his plan to visit Moscow, during a conversation with members of that Russian delegation. The Pope expressed his desire to return to the patriarch the famous icon of Our Lady of Kazan, which was rescued from the black market by an American Catholic and given to the Bishop of Rome, to be returned to the patriarch.

Orthodox sources reported that Russian Bishop Hilarion of Kerchen, member of the Assisi delegation, replied to the Pope that relations between the patriarch of Moscow and Rome were «highly unsatisfactory,» and that Alexy II could only meet John Paul II after resolving the problem of «proselytism under all its forms.»

The patriarch insists that the Vatican must respect what it calls the principle of «canonical territory,» which opposes the presence of the Catholic Church in areas of Orthodox majority.

Moreover, the Russian Orthodox Church is resentful of the rebirth of Catholic communities of the Byzantine rite, which under Stalin were forced to enter the Orthodox Church. Greek-Catholic bishops, priests and laymen who opposed this imposition were incarcerated and even martyred.

On Jan. 15, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he was willing to invite John Paul II to visit Moscow «at any time,» and to encourage the Catholic and Orthodox Churches to «enter into full relations.»

But Putin added that the papal visit would require the approval of the Russian Orthodox Church «and this, unfortunately, does not depend on me.» The president´s stance was described as «wise» on Jan. 18 by Patriarch Alexy II.

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