VATICAN CITY, NOV. 4, 2003 ( Russian President Vladimir Putin said he aims to promote Christian unity when he visits John Paul II on Wednesday.

"I believe that my objective is to foster the unification of Christianity taking the opportune steps and not so much to enable the Pope to come to Russia," said the leader of the Russian Federation, in an interview published today by the Italian newspaper Il Corriere della Sera.

"Christianity is at the base of European culture and European identity," Putin affirmed as he prepared for his second visit to the Vatican.

On the other visit, on June 5, 2002, contrary to what Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin did when they went to the Vatican, Putin did not invite the Pope to visit his country.

"The divisions that exist between Catholics and the Orthodox Church also exist, for example, between Catholics and Anglicans," Putin said. "All these differences must be reconciled."

"This is particularly opportune for Russia, as it also represents a step toward integration in the European area," he said. "But of course we must be integrated without losing our culture and identity. Therefore, we must proceed with much caution on this path."

Putin added: "The Pope is an intelligent and wise person and I think he will understand this."

Putin gave an interview to U.S. journalists, published Sept. 29 in the Washington Post, in which he explained that "he must respect the position of the Orthodox Church," which opposes the papal visit.

Relations between Russia and the Holy See deteriorated after Russian authorities expelled a bishop and at least five priests from the country without explanations, following the Pope's establishment of four dioceses in Russia in February 2002.

The Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches have been divided since the schism of 1054.