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Saturday, December 5, 2009

Pope Meets with Russian President: Full Diplomatic Relations with Holy See a Major Step Forward

By Hilary White

The President of Russia, in a visit to Rome, has pledged his government to full diplomatic relations with the Vatican, a move that is being called an historic step forward for relations between the former communist state and the Catholic Church.

On a one-day visit to Rome, Dmitry Medvedev met with the pope for 30 minutes, speaking through interpreters. A media release from the Vatican said that President Medvedev had spoken with Pope Benedict on the "value of the family and the contribution believers make to life in Russia."

Previous visits by Russian leaders to the Holy See have failed to heal the rift between the Catholic Church and Russia after 70 years of anti-religious communism and a thousand years of schism between Catholicism and the Russian Orthodox Church.

The Russian presidential spokeswoman Natalia Timakova said that the Russian foreign ministry has been asked to "lead discussions to establish the relations and raise the level of representation to apostolic nuncio and embassy." Until now Russia and the Vatican have maintained diplomatic representation, but below the rank of ambassador.

The visit follows moves to create stronger ties between the Vatican and the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, with both bodies expressing concerns about the secularization of European life.

The Russian government has increased its attention to supporting marriage and childbirth in the face of massive loss and aging of its population. The country has considerably improved its economic condition since the collapse of communism, with a 72 percent increase in GDP and 150 percent increase in average wages during the premiership of Vladimir Putin. But Russia still faces huge challenges including a looming demographic crisis with a below-replacement birth rate and staggeringly high rates of abortion.

Demographers have estimated that Russia's population has been declining at about 0.5 per cent per year, or about 750,000 to 800,000 people per year during the late 1990s and most of the 2000s. A UN report warned that Russia will lose about a third of its population by 2050 unless the current trends are halted.

Improvement of relations between the Russian Federation, the Russian Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church could signal the country's determination to stand against the depopulating and secularizing trends in Europe.

In a statement released today, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia stressed the importance of Orthodox-Catholic dialogue in opposing the challenges of atheistic society. Kirill thanked the Catholic Church for its support in opening an Orthodox seminary in France.

"Today we're facing the challenges of secularism. We need to respond the challenges together basing on historical experience," Patriarch Kirill said at a Thursday meeting with a delegation of the Catholic Church at the Moscow patriarchal residence.

"Therefore Churches working in apostolic tradition are called to close interaction,"
Patriarch Kirill said.

Relations between the Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches have warmed considerably recently since the death of the former primate, the late Patriarch Alexy II, a hardliner who accused the Catholic Church of "poaching" Orthodox believers.

Reuters reports that Medvedev, himself a practicing Russian Orthodox, took part in a ceremony in which the Italian government granted a pilgrimage centre in the southern city of Bari to the Orthodox Church in March.

The Russian Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow has published in both Russian and Italian a collection of speeches by Pope Benedict XVI titled, Europe Spiritual Homeland, and reports that a government official in Belarus suggested that his country might be an appropriate place for the much-anticipated ecumenical summit between the two faiths.

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