After a visit to Russia, the Vatican's top official for Christian unity has said a meeting between Pope Benedict XVI and Patriarch Alexei II of the Russian Orthodox Church is "possible". Such an encounter would be the first-ever meeting between a Roman pontiff and a Russian Orthodox patriarch - writes Luigi Sandri.
"All seems going in the direction of a meeting between Benedict XVI and Patriarch Alexei II. Until now there is not a concrete agenda but there are many signals," said Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.
Kasper made his remarks in an interview published on 3 June 2008 in the Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano. The cardinal spent 10 days in Russia at the end of May, where he met Roman Catholic and Orthodox bishops, and had a meeting with Patriarch Alexei.
Benedict's predecessor, Pope John Paul II, spoke repeatedly about his dream of visiting Russia but met resistance from the Moscow Patriarchate, which had accused the Vatican of aggressively seeking converts among Russian Orthodox faithful. Another controversial issue concerned what Orthodox call "uniatism", or Catholics who follow the Orthodox Eastern Rite but come under the jurisdiction of Rome.
"In Moscow, I received a welcome that would have been unbelievable a year ago," said Kasper. He added that he had given Alexei a letter from Pope Benedict, and had brought back a message to the Pope from the Russian Patriarch.
"The Orthodox are looking for cooperation on Christian values ... on issues such as the family, ethics and human rights," said Kasper. He said, "remaining difficulties" between Rome and Moscow included the issue of papal primacy.
In Moscow, the Interfax news agency reported the Moscow Patriarchate as suggesting that Kasper's statements about a meeting between Pope Benedict and Patriarch Alexei, "may be a diplomatic move by the Vatican".
Interfax quoted Deacon Andrey Kurayev, a professor at the Moscow Theological Academy, as saying, "Such commentaries by one of the parties are sometimes a diplomatic move intended to put certain soft pressure on the negotiating parties."
A proposed meeting in Hungary in 1996 between Pope John Paul II and Patriarch Alexei was cancelled, and speculation that the two leaders would meet the following year in Vienna also came to nothing. There has been repeated conjecture since the election of Pope Benedict in 2005 about a meeting between him and Patriarch Alexei.
[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.]