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Thaw in Rome-Moscow relations?

Russian President Vladimir Putin said he is willing to invite Pope John Paul to visit Moscow "at any time," and to encourage the Catholic and Russian Orthodox Churches to "establish full relations," a report said.

In an interview published today by the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, Putin said, "There is no problem in relations between Russia and the Vatican. I am willing to invite the Pope at any time." The complete version of the interview will be published on Wednesday, the first day of the Russian head of state's visit to Warsaw.

Putin said that Pope John Paul "wishes this visit to be an important event, which means renewing full relations with the Russian Orthodox Church. This, unfortunately, does not depend on me."

Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin both invited the Pope to visit their country during their meetings with the Bishop of Rome in the Vatican. Putin did not renew the invitation officially, when he was received in audience by the Pontiff in Rome on June 5, 2000, so as not to stir rancor in Alexy II, the Orthodox patriarch of Moscow.

"I work in this direction, but it is one of those situations in which one must work without talking too much. Tact and patience are necessary," said the former Soviet spy, referring to his desire to receive the Pope in Moscow.

Rome-Moscow relations are shifting. On Jan. 1, an unprecedented event took place: A choir that sings at the patriarch's liturgies offered a concert in the Vatican for the Pope with Alexy II's permission.

Following the fall of Communism, relations between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Vatican cooled off. The Moscow Patriarchate has resented the rebirth of Catholic communities, especially those of Eastern rite, in the Russian "canonical" territory considered exclusively Orthodox.

In a significant statement for a Russian president, Putin said, "It might seem strange but we are also proud that a representative of the Slav peoples, a Pole, became a Pope. It is something singularly positive for us."