PARIS, Oct 4 (Reuters) The Russian Orthodox Church and the Vatican are making real progress in preparing the ground for a historic meeting between Patriarch Alexiy II and Pope Benedict, a senior Russian prelate said today.
Orthodox Christianity and Roman Catholicism have been split since the Great Schism of 1054. High-level contacts with the Russian Orthodox picked up after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union but were soon soured by tension between the two churches.
The Vatican wants a summit with the Russian church, the largest in the worldwide Orthodox family of 220 million, to close ranks in defence of Christian values in Europe.
No pope has met a Russian Orthodox patriarch.
''There is real movement,'' Metropolitan Kirill, external relations chief for the Moscow Patriarchate, said at the end of Alexiy's four-day visit to France. ''We have achieved some very positive results recently.'' France's Catholic Church urged Alexiy on Wednesday to speed up preparations for a meeting and suggested it take place before resolution of several disputes about Catholicism in the former Soviet Union, rather than after as Alexiy has stipulated.
Asked about the contrasting proposals, Kirill told journalists: ''I agree with both of them.'' He said the contentious issues ''are being worked on now''.
Pope Paul VI held a ground-breaking meeting in 1964 with Athenagoras, then the ecumenical patriarch or spiritual head of all Orthodox. Popes John Paul and Benedict met his successors.
The Russians accuse the Vatican of trying to expand in the former Soviet Union at the same time as Orthodoxy is reasserting itself following seven decades of atheist Soviet pressure.
Kirill gave no timeframe for a possible meeting, which Alexiy said earlier this week could be in one or two years.
He said it was premature to speak of a location but hinted neither Moscow nor Rome would be involved, saying it should be ''where both can feel at home.'' Vatican observers say Vienna or Geneva would appear to fit that description.
The late Pope John Paul described the eastern and western churches as the two lungs of Christianity and longed to visit Moscow. But the Russian Orthodox Church never invited the Polish-born pontiff.
Benedict, who leads 1.1 billion faithful, has frequently stressed how much Catholics have in common with the Orthodox, especially in their defence of Christian values in Europe and opposition to abortion, euthanasia and same-sex unions.
Alexiy echoed several of these themes in an address to the Council of Europe in Strasbourg on Tuesday and condemned homosexual acts as sinful.
REUTERS JK PM1640