On a five-day visit to Rome, a Russian Orthodox official in charge of interchurch relations has had a meeting with the Pope and this is being seen as a sign of improved relations between the two churches under Benedict XVI and the new Russian Patriarch Kirill I - writes Sophia Kishkovsky.
An official website of the Moscow Patriarchate (www.mospat.ru ) has reported that Russian Orthodox Archbishop Hilarion of Volokolamsk met Pope Benedict at Castel Gandolfo, the pontifical summer residence.
Hilarion is chairperson of the external church relations section of the Moscow Patriarchate. He is reported as having told Benedict that the Orthodox and Roman Catholic positions on issues such as family values and euthanasia were identical and distinct from the views of many Protestant churches.
On 19 September 2009 the Russian archbishop took part in a service at the Catacombs of St Callixtus. Apparently he spoke of the martyrdom of the early Christians in Rome.
"Now, when the Orthodox and Catholic churches are not in Eucharistic communion, and when many Protestant denominations have deviated from the fundamental principles of Christianity, we must understand clearly that division is a sin that tears apart the body of the Church and weakens the strength of Christian witness before the secular world," said Hilarion at the service.
During his visit, Hilarion also met other Vatican officials including Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone and Cardinal Walter Kasper, who heads the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. Kasper told Vatican Radio on 17 September, "The situation in Moscow has very much improved, "We have overcome the tensions. We are in a new situation."
Through much of the post-Soviet era, and under Polish-born Pope John Paul II, relations between the Moscow Patriarchate and the Vatican were marked by the flaring of centuries-old tensions over the issue of Uniates, who are Christians concentrated in Ukraine, and who observe the Byzantine rite but are loyal to Rome. The Russian Orthodox Church has in the past also accused the Vatican of proselytising in the former Soviet republic.
Russia's Interfax news agency reported that Hilarion raised the issue at his meeting with the Pope, according to the report on the patriarchate's website. In addition, Hilarion mentioned another sensitive subject regarding relations with the Patriarchate of Constantinople. Contact between the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople and the Moscow Patriarchate have been tense since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The Russian Orthodox Church is the world's largest Orthodox church and it objects to Constantinople being compared to Rome. The Russian church says that Constantinople's primacy is honorary and its jurisdiction does not extend beyond the Patriarchate of Constantinople, which is based in Istanbul.
Still, leaders of the Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches have recently spoken increasingly of each other as allies in defending traditional spiritual values in the secular world. This has led to growing speculation that a meeting between Patriarch Kirill I and Pope Benedict could take place in the foreseeable future.
The Russian Orthodox Church reacted negatively both to Pope John Paul II's desire to visit Russia and his visits to former Soviet republics.
Signs now point to a meeting between the Pope and the Russian Patriarch on neutral territory. Plans for such a meeting in Austria in 1997 between the late Russian Patriarch Aleksei II and Pope John Paul II fell through at the last moment.
Orthodoxy came to what is now modern-day Russia, through Byzantium, in 988, less than a century before the Great Schism divided the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches in 1054.
[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International  is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Conference of European Churches.]