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Contact With Pope Uncertain

ReutersA policeman outside Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral on Monday.
The next head of the Russian Orthodox Church will only meet the Roman Catholic pope if tensions between the two faiths are resolved, the front-runner to become the new Russian patriarch said.

Metropolitan Kirill, shortlisted with two other senior clergymen for a vote on the new patriarch, is viewed as the candidate most open to contacts with the Vatican. But he said in a newspaper interview that the church's position would not change.

The new patriarch will lead a church of about 165 million believers worldwide and determine whether to repair ties with the Catholic Church that have been strained since a schism in 1054 split Christianity into eastern and western branches.

Patriarch Alexy II, who died last month, resisted meetings with two successive pontiffs, but some scholars of religion have predicted that Kirill, who met Pope Benedict in the Vatican two years ago, could be more open to the idea.

"The position of the Russian Orthodox Church with regard to the possibility of a meeting between its patriarch and the Catholic pope remains unchanged," Kirill said in an interview published Monday in the Trud newspaper.

"A meeting between the patriarch and the pope will become possible only when there are conclusive signs of real and positive progress on issues which for a long time have been problematic for our relations," he said.

The main obstacle to better relations between the two churches is the Russian charge that Rome has been trying to convert Orthodox believers to Catholicism since the end of communism, an allegation the Vatican denies.

About 700 hundred Russian Orthodox clergy, monks and laypeople will convene in a local council on Tuesday to start the process of selecting a new patriarch from the shortlist.

Kirill, the church's top diplomat who has close contacts with other Christian denominations, won 97 votes at a first round of voting in the church's Council of Bishops on Sunday.

His closest rival for the position is Metropolitan Kliment, seen by many observers as the favored candidate of the conservative camp, with 32 votes. Belarussian-based Metropolitan Filaret was supported by 16 delegates.

Observers say Kirill, 62, is a shrewd political operator who has been careful not to appear too liberal for fear of alienating traditionalists in the church whose support he may need to win election as patriarch.

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