VATICAN CITY, NOV. 5, 2003 ( John Paul II assured President Vladimir Putin that he prays for Russia, and thanked the leader for his commitment to bring Orthodox and Catholics closer together.

Relations between the Holy See and the Russian Orthodox Church became more difficult following the Pope's decision in February 2002 to establish four Catholic dioceses in Russia. The Orthodox have similar jurisdictions outside Russia.

During the audience today, John Paul II had his aides bring into the Vatican Library for the meeting an icon revered by Russian believers, the icon of the Mother of God of Kazan. The icon usually hangs in the Pope's private chapel.

Putin watched as the Pope blessed the icon, and then the Russian leader himself kissed it, Vatican interpreters said.

According to Russian reporters who were in the room, the Holy Father then said in Russian, "I want to thank President Putin for everything he has done to bring the Russian Orthodox and Catholic Churches closer together, and for peace in the world."

Before leaving on a state visit to Italy, Putin told Italian reporters in Moscow that he wanted to help end the dispute between the Vatican and the Orthodox Church, but that Russia would defend its faith and identity.

"I see my task not in ensuring the Pope's visit to Russia, but in helping these steps toward unity," he said. "Naturally, it would be possible only if the Churches reach an agreement."

Vatican spokesman Joaquín Navarro-Valls reported that "in a parallel manner to the audience, Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano addressed the same topics with Igor Ivanov, the Russian Foreign Affairs Minister, and the other Ministers of the delegation."

"In particular, they examined the new initiatives under way for peace in the Holy Land," he said. The spokesman added: "The audience given by the Pope lasted 30 minutes and was very cordial."