Pope salutes Alexy II, Medvedev cancels visit after death of Orthodox Church head

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Vatican City: December 6, 2008. (ANSA) Pope Benedict XVI on Friday sent the Russian Orthodox Church his condolences for the death of its head, Patriarch Alexy II.

Despite past tension, Benedict recalled ''a common commitment on the path of mutual understanding and cooperation between Orthodox and Catholics''. He praised Russia's first post-Communist-era Church chief for his efforts in fostering ''the rebirth of the Church after harsh ideological oppression'' and his ''good fight in defence of human and evangelical rights'' in Europe. Italian President Giorgio Napolitano phoned Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to voice his sorrow at Alexy's death at the age of 79 after long heart problems. Napolitano described ''the high moral stature'' of the late Russian church leader and praised his ecumenical work, the Italian president's office said, noting that Napolitano met Alexy in Moscow last July. Medvedev told Napolitano he was flying straight back to Moscow from a state visit to India and would be unable to attend a ceremony in Bari to return a Russian orthodox church dedicated to St Nicholas to Russia. The two presidents agreed to reschedule the ceremony as soon as possible. Rome's influential Catholic human rights and peace-brokering organisation, the Sant'Egidio Community, also mourned Alexy II and praised his efforts in bringing Catholic and Orthodox Churches closer. The Vatican has had seesawing relations with the Russian Orthodox Church over the years but the last two popes always hoped for a meeting that might have been a historic stage in reuniting the eastern and western branches of Christianity, which have been divided since 1054. In June 2007 Cardinal Walter Kasper, head of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, told journalists that Benedict and Alexy II were both open to an encounter, probably on neutral ground, ''within a year''. WARMING RELATIONS. Once-frosty relations between the Catholic and Orthodox worlds have been slowly improving for years and took important steps forward when the previous pope, John Paul II, visited Orthodox countries such as Romania, Greece and Ukraine. The Polish pope wanted to visit Russia but never received an invitation from Alexy. With 85 million members, the Russian Orthodox Church is the most numerous in the Orthodox world and it has also been the most anti-Rome. Alexy always said a meeting in Russia or the Vatican could only take place if there was progress in key areas of discord, such as Orthodox accusations of 'proselytism' by Catholics in Russia and former Soviet Union countries. Proselytism means when members of one church try to convert the believers of another. Relations between Rome and Moscow appeared to have improved with Benedict's election in 2005. Analysts noted that the German pontiff was greatly respected in the Orthodox world, partly because of his evident attachment to tradition. It was also sometimes suggested that, with a Polish pope in the Vatican, progress was hindered by Russia's perceived distrust for that nation.

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