PARIS, Oct 1 (Reuters) Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexiy II has said on the eve of a visit to France that a historic meeting with Pope Benedict could take place in a year or two if it is properly prepared.
In an interview published in Paris today, Alexiy praised Benedict's efforts to promote Christian values in Europe and said Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholics should work together to oppose same-sex marriage, euthanasia and abortion.
''Concerning the possibility of meeting Benedict, I don't exclude anything,'' he told the daily Le Figaro. ''Maybe not in a month, but in a year or two. But we must prepare carefully and resolve all difficulties.'' Christianity's Western and Eastern branches have been split since the Great Schism of 1054. Recent decades have brought closer ties, but also strains as Moscow accused the Vatican of trying to win converts after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
Benedict visited Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual head of the world's 220 million Orthodox, in Istanbul last year.
But no Pope has ever met a head of the Russian Church, the largest in world Orthodoxy.
Senior prelates at the Vatican, which represents 1.1 billion Catholics worldwide, have said recently that a meeting could take place in about a year. Alexiy has previously kept open the possibility of a meeting but shied away from any timeframe.
''I am convinced the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church should work together to defend Christian values against aggressive materialism,'' Alexiy said. ''The Pope's personal vision contributes to this rapprochement.'' GOODWILL GESTURE During his visit to France, Alexiy will address the Council of Europe in the eastern city of Strasbourg tomorrow and hold separate meetings with French Catholic bishops and President Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris on Wednesday.
Before leaving on Thursday, he will visit the St Genevieve de Bois cemetery outside Paris where many famous Russian exiles are buried, ranging from aristocrats and Orthodox clergy to dancer Rudolf Nureyev and dissident Andre Amalrik.
In the interview, Alexiy said some Catholic leaders saw Russia as ''a religious desert to be cultivated. I do not agree.'' He also accused Eastern rite Catholic churches loyal to Rome of spreading into areas they never used to be present in, such as eastern Ukraine, Russia and Kazakhstan.
Last month, Benedict named an Italian to replace Moscow's Catholic Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, of Polish descent, in a step seen as a goodwill gesture toward the Orthodox.
The late globe-trotting Pope John Paul II wanted to visit Moscow but was never invited. Vatican observers cited his Polish nationality as a stumbling block in Catholic relations with the highly patriotic Russian Orthodox Church.
Cardinal Walter Kasper, head of the Vatican department for relations with other Christian churches, said in June there was no talk of a possible meeting in Rome or Moscow. Vienna has been suggested as a possible meeting place.
Reuters SKB RS1709