- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 23, 2003

MOSCOW (AP) Russia is working to organize a historic visit by Pope John Paul II "in the near future," Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov said yesterday, despite the Russian Orthodox Church's opposition to the idea.
No pope has ever visited Russia, but Pope John Paul has repeatedly said he wants to as part of efforts to promote greater Christian unity.
The Russian Orthodox Church is against the visit, accusing the Vatican of trying to win converts.
Mr. Kasyanov, speaking to reporters on a trip to the Volga River city of Rybinsk, said the government hopes the pope will visit Russia "in the near future."
"Yes, indeed, we are trying to help arrange it," Mr. Kasyanov said in remarks broadcast by Russia's NTV television.
But Mr. Kasyanov said the decision about a papal visit should be made by the churches.
"The agreement must be reached by church leaders," he said. "That's not a decision to be made by the government."
Orthodox Church spokesman the Rev. Vsevolod Chaplin said he hoped the Vatican would not plan a Russia visit without his church's consent, the Interfax news agency reported.
Reports have surfaced recently that the Vatican wants to arrange a stopover in Russia when the pope goes to Mongolia in August to inaugurate a Roman Catholic cathedral in the mainly Buddhist country.
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said last week that he may meet with the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church to help arrange the visit.
Mr. Berlusconi said the Vatican asked him to arrange the meeting with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II, which Mr. Berlusconi said he later discussed with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
According to Russian news reports, Mr. Putin has long wanted the pope to visit in an apparent hope that it would help bring Russia closer to the West and strengthen the country's international standing.
But Patriarch Alexy II has resisted meeting with the pope, saying such a meeting could occur only after the relations between the churches improve.

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