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Pope, Medvedev talk religion, Mideast in landmark meeting

Russian leader's first visit since relations upgraded

17 February, 15:19
Pope, Medvedev talk religion, Mideast in landmark meeting (ANSA) - Vatican City, February 17 - Russian President Dmitry Medvedev met Pope Benedict XVI here on Thursday in the first visit by a Russian leader to the Vatican since the states established full diplomatic relations in 2009.

The visit is another sign that the once frosty relations between the Holy See and Russia are becoming increasingly cordial and there have been reports a meeting between Benedict and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill could be on the cards soon.

''The parties expressed their pleasure at the good state of bilateral relations and highlighted their desire to strengthen them, also in the wake of the establishment of full diplomatic relations,'' read a Vatican statement.

During ''cordial discussions'' Benedict and Medvedev talked about cooperation on promoting ''human and Christian values'', the importance of inter-religious dialogue and the Middle East. Then they exchanged gifts. Medvedev gave the pontiff the latest volume of the Orthodox Encyclopaedia and a picture of the Kremlim, while the Russian leader received a mosaic of St Peter's.

The Vatican and Russia were able to formally upgrade their relations from 'official' to 'diplomatic' in December 2009 following a thaw of relations between the Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches.

The Russian church had accused the Catholics of trying to lure people over to their brand of Christianity on their back yard, prompting unfriendly relations between the Holy See and the Russian state too.

Kirill's predecessor Alexy II, who died in 2008, long refused to meet John Paul II and former Russian President Vladimir Putin - who is now the country's prime minister - was one of the few heads of state not to attend the late pope's funeral in 2005.

But the two churches are now increasingly seeking to launch joint initiatives on areas of concern to them, such as growing secularism in Europe.

After the visit to the Vatican, Medvedev boarded a flight to Moscow having met Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi and President Giorgio Napolitano on Monday. Berlusconi and Medvedev inaugurated the Italian-Russia cultural exchange year, which starts with a show by Russian painter Alexander Deyneka at Rome's Palazzo delle Esposizioni centre.

A number of commercial and security accords were signed during Medvedev's two-day visit, including an agreement between Russian energy giant Gazprom and Italy's ENI for the development of oil fields in Libya.