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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Pope Hosts President In 'Cordial' Audience

President Boris Yeltsin had a symbolic meeting with Pope John Paul II in the Vatican late Tuesday, crowning his three-day state visit to Italy with talks described by the Vatican as "extremely cordial."

The two leaders spoke privately beyond schedule for about an hour but disclosed few details of their discussions.

Earlier Tuesday, Yeltsin signed several cooperation agreements with Italy, a key Russian trading partner. He also agreed with Prime Minister Romano Prodi on a joint message to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, urging him to respond to diplomatic efforts to reach a peaceful end to the Iraq-UN standoff over weapons inspections.

Though an audience with the pope in the Vatican library is a customary formality granted to visiting heads of states, the meeting between John Paul and Yeltsin -- their second -- was laden with symbolism because of the prominent role each played in the collapse of communism.

His visit took on added significance this time because of increased strains between the Vatican and the Russian Orthodox Church, although Yeltsin's spokesman said the subject was not discussed.

Yeltsin said Monday he intended to renew his invitation for the pope to visit Russia, although such a trip is not possible until relations between the two churches improve.

"A visit of this sort requires a radical change in relations between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Vatican," The Associated Press quoted Yeltsin's spokesman, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, as saying.

Yeltsin's wife, Naina, and daughter Tatyana took part in the audience. The Russian president also introduced members of his delegation to the pontiff, emphasizing that First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov is "the youngest in the government," Interfax reported.

Russian television showed the frail pontiff, 77, and Yeltsin, 67, walking slowly along a Vatican corridor, speaking in Russian, and taking their seats at a small ornate table.

"You remember this library?" said the pope.

"I remember it well," answered Yeltsin, who previously met the pope on Dec. 20, 1991, shortly before the formal dissolution of the Soviet Union.

"I hope we will go down the road of the third millennium together," Interfax quoted John Paul as saying at the end of the audience.Yastrzhembsky said Yeltsin explained Russia's law on religious associations, which gives special state recognition to the Orthodox Church. Yeltsin signed a slightly softened version of the bill in September, despite the Vatican's view at the time that it would impose undue restrictions on minority religions in Russia.

Anatoly Krasikov, director of the Center for Religion and Society at the Institute of European Studies and president of the Russian chapter of the International Religious Liberty Association, said Tuesday in Moscow that Western religious circles viewed Tuesday's meeting as a chance for the pope to lobby for greater religious freedom in Russia.

"It is a formality, but it can and should go beyond such a framework, because the situation regarding religious liberty in Russia is undergoing a substantial change, which generates much concern," Krasikov said.

Problems in relations between the Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, which began to thaw in the 1960s and 1970s, emerged soon after Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev met with the pope in 1989 and gave a green light to the legalization of the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine and the establishment of a Roman Catholic hierarchy in Russia.

The Greek Catholic, or Uniate, church, which retains Byzantine rites but has Catholic dogma and is subordinate to the Vatican, was outlawed by Stalin in 1946 and forcefully incorporated into the Moscow Patriarchate.

In the 1990s, the Moscow Patriarchate lost nearly all of its parishes in western Ukraine to often violent takeovers by Uniates and Ukrainian nationalists who view Orthodoxy as a Russian imperial force. The formerly large Orthodox dioceses of Lviv and Ivano-Frankovsk have practically ceased to exist.

Along with what the Russian church views as overzealous Catholic missionary work in Russia, the Ukrainian church conflict has generated wide anti-Catholic and anti-ecumenical sentiments among many Russian Orthodox Church adherents. Last June, a planned meeting in Vienna between Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow and the pope was called off by the Moscow Patriarchate because no substantial progress was achieved in negotiations.

"Our position is very clear: the Russian church is at present against a visit to Russia by the pope," Father Ilarion Alfeyev, the Moscow Patriarchate official responsible for relations with non-Orthodox churches, said. "We want to achieve a real improvement of the situation in Ukraine."

Alfeyev said during a recent visit to Moscow, a senior Vatican official, Cardinal Cassidi, said the Vatican was unable to influence the Ukrainian Greek Catholics."But no matter what, the Greek Catholic Church is part of the Roman Catholic Church, though a somewhat autonomous one," Alfeyev said.

He added that the Roman Catholic presence in Russia is far beyond what is necessary to care for the spiritual needs of Russia's traditionally Catholic population, which is largely made of ethnic Poles, Lithuanians, Belarussians and Germans.

The Roman Catholic Church, sternly disputes that argument, and claims its Russian flock to be anywhere from 300,000 to 1.5 million people.

Earlier Tuesday, Yeltsin appeared before the press together with Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi, giving mixed messages on Iraq.

Yeltsin said he and Prodi would send a joint message to Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, seeking a peaceful solution to the conflict.

"Our position is to avoid military action that could lead to a big conflagration. That is what is worrying the both of us," Yeltsin said in remarks reported by Western news agencies.

Though Yeltsin has generally looked strong and fit during the visit, some reports said he made minor errors in protocol during a ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Piazza Venezia despite efforts of aides to guide him. He also appeared to have difficulty understanding several questions at a news conference.

Yeltsin, who announced upon arrival in Rome on Monday that he had a commitment from the UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to travel to Baghdad, had to face a denial Tuesday.

"Though he told me that he had a positive attitude to this, then he evidently came under pressure," said Yeltsin. "It happens, he rethought it."

Yeltsin praised the agreements he signed with Prodi and called Russian-Italian relations "unprecedented." But he said he hopes they will improve further this year. The trade turnover is to increase by 1.5 to 2 times from the current level of $6 billion a year as a result of the documents signed, Yeltsin said.