Pope offers olive branch to Orthodox churches

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A magnificent Baroque church in the centre of Rome is to be shared between Roman Catholic and Bulgarian Orthodox worshippers, in a move described as a milestone in relations between the Catholic and Orthodox churches.

Today, Cardinal Walter Kasper will inaugurate the dual use of the 17th-century church of St Vincent and St Anastasius directly opposite the Trevi Fountain, one of the city's biggest tourist attractions. The church contains the embalmed hearts and viscera of 22 popes.

A portable iconostasis, a screen decorated with icons between the worshippers and the clergy, will be installed to allow the Eastern liturgy to be celebrated.

The gesture by Pope John Paul II comes only days after the latest broadside aimed at the Vatican by the leaders of the Orthodox church in Russia. The Pope plans a pastoral visit to Mongolia during the summer, probably in August, and there are rumours that he may stop off in Russia, at Kazan, the capital of the republic of Tatarstan, 500 miles east of Moscow, on the way to Ulan Bator.

No Roman Catholic pope has visited Russia, although there are believed to be some 600,000 Catholics in the population of 148 million. The Pope has made no secret of the fact that he would love to be the first.

But the hierarchy of the Russian church misses no opportunity to pour cold water on the idea. A statement issued by the church in Moscow on Monday said: "The prospects of the Pope's meeting with Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Alexy II depend entirely on the Vatican's readiness to make steps towards a real settlement of the problems between the two churches."

The Russians were infuriated by the Vatican's decision more than a year ago to create four fully fledged diocese in Russia and Kazakhstan. That decision, said the statement from Moscow, has dealt "another serious blow to the entire complex of relations between the Orthodox and the Catholics ... The Vatican's course is aimed entirely at exacerbating the existing difficulties."

While refusing to back-pedal on Catholic church development in Russia and former Soviet lands, the Pope has been seeking ways to persuade the Russians to receive him.

One gambit was the offering of an icon, supposedly of the 16th century and claimed to be one of Russia's holiest objects, purchased by the Vatican after it was smuggled out of Russia in the wake of the Bolshevik revolution. Known as the Kazan Mother of God icon, encrusted with rubies and gold, it is reputed to be the protector of Russia, the secret weapon behind Napoleon's flight from Moscow and the expulsion of Polish invaders in the 17th century.

The Pope extended this precious heirloom as justifying his hoped-for trip to Russia. But this week Moscow denounced the icon as an 18th-century copy and said it was inadequate as a peace offering. "The return of the icon ... under no circumstances can be considered a reason for John Paul II's visit to Russia," the church said.

The decision of the Catholic church to share one of its finest Roman churches with the Bulgarian Orthodox church is another olive branch proffered to the East. "It's a milestone in relations between Catholic and Orthodox churches," a Vatican watcher said. "But there are not many strategies available to change the relationship between the churches. The only hope is the opening of the patriarchy to modern times."