- Following a meeting between Pope Benedict XVI and Archbishop Hilarion, the top ecumenical official of the Russian Orthodox Church, Cardinal Walter Kasper told Vatican Radio that he saw a dramatic improvement in relations between the Holy See and the Moscow patriarchate. Reflecting on the icy relations between Rome and Moscow during the pontificate of John Paul II, the president of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity said, "we have overcome all the tensions in recent years."

Questioned whether Pope Benedict might eventually travel to Moscow-- a cherished ambition of John Paul II-- Cardinal Kasper said that such a trip was not currently under discussion. However, he said, Russian Orthodox officials are now "not refusing a meeting with the Pope." If such a meeting is arranged, he said, it would probably take place neither in Moscow nor in Rome but in a neutral location.

At least twice Vatican officials made preliminary plans for Pope John Paul to meet with the late Patriarch Alexei II in a neutral location, only to have the plans scuttled when the Orthodox patriarchate raised new demands. The Russian Orthodox Church has frequently said that a "summit meeting" can take place only after the Vatican provides assurances that the Catholic Church will not seek converts in the Eastern European countries that Moscow claims as its "canonical territory."

Indeed, while Cardinal Kasper was offering his optimistic appraisal of relations with the Russian Orthodox, Archbishop Hilarion said that the status of Eastern-rite Catholic churches, particularly in Ukraine, remains the most contentious issue between Moscow and Rome and the main obstacle to further ecumenical progress.

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