VATICAN CITY - Call it icon diplomacy.
Just as the visit of a U.S. table tennis team to China - "pingpong diplomacy" - helped open the way for a visit by President Richard Nixon in 1972, the Vatican is hoping that a series of small steps can break down barriers with the Russian Orthodox Church and Orthodoxy elsewhere, bringing Pope John Paul II to Russia.
The Vatican recently returned a Russian icon revered by the country's Orthodox community, and now plans to send back the relics of two Orthodox saints taken from Constantinople as plunder by Crusaders eight centuries ago.
Certainly, the Vatican has few illusions that Christianity's final split into Western and Eastern branches in the 11th century is easily repaired. Both sides recognize that the power of the papacy was a principal reason for the rupture, and remains so.
Added to that are the new rivalries arising from the rebirth of the Roman Catholic Church in the heavily Orthodox lands of the former Soviet Union, a religious revival spurred in part by the Polish-born pontiff's successful efforts to bring down communism. Accusations that the Vatican is seeking souls among the Orthodox - as well as attempts to regain Catholic churches in Ukraine given to the Orthodox by the communists - have strained relations.
Still, the Vatican has hoped for enough goodwill to enable the pope to make a groundbreaking visit to Moscow to demonstrate his personal commitment to eventual reconciliation. No pontiff has ever set foot in Russia, but 84-year-old John Paul would accept an invitation - even though he suffers from Parkinson's disease and crippling knee and hip ailments.
There are signs of movement by both sides, putting aside the chilly moment when Catholic priests were being refused visas and the Vatican was accusing Moscow of waging a "despicable" anti-Catholic campaign.
In August, the Vatican sent a revered icon back to Moscow that was smuggled to the West after the 1917 Russian Revolution. It hung in the pope's private chapel, and aides said he had long awaited the opportune moment to return it.
"I believe that your decision to return the icon shows your sincere desire to overcome the difficulties existing between our churches," Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II wrote John Paul.
This month, to mark John Paul's 26th anniversary as pontiff, no less than a Russian military band serenaded the pope at the Vatican.
And next month, the Vatican is returning to world Orthodoxy's honorary headquarters in Istanbul the bones of two saints seized by the Crusaders about 800 years ago and kept in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. Ecumenical Patriarch Barthlomew I of Constantinople, the spiritual leader of Orthodox Christians, lobbied for the return of the relics during a rare June visit to the Vatican.
"Certainly, there have been steps forward," said papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls, a member of the Vatican delegation that accompanied the Mother of God of Kazan icon back to Moscow and turned it over to the Orthodox in an incense-filled ceremony in a Kremlin cathedral. "The climate seems to be changing," he told The Associated Press.
"Without question, what we are seeing is positive," said the Rev. Jozef Maj, a Vatican specialist on relations with the Russian Orthodox.
There are even signs of movement on a major sticking point - the Russian Orthodox charge that Catholics are trying to poach parishioners among Orthodox believers, an accusation the Vatican insists is groundless.
Rome says the building of hospitals and schools is what the church does everywhere in the world, and that in Russia is simply part of efforts to minister to its flock of some 600,000 people - less than 1 percent of Russia's 144 million population.
Both sides have welcomed the recent establishment of a joint commission of the local Catholic Church and the Orthodox that will examine allegations of proselytism and other problems.
"The progress is that both sides agreed that problems exist and began considering them," Metropolitan Kirill, the influential head of the Russian Orthodox Church's foreign relations department, said this month.
Some members of Russia's Catholic community have complained that the Vatican is so eager to win permission for a papal visit that it is bowing to any Orthodox demand.
It is true that the Vatican has withheld bestowing the title "patriarch" on the leader of Ukrainian Catholics, Cardinal Lubomyr Husar, to avoid raising the church's profile and further inflaming tensions. The Catholic Church in the Ukraine was suppressed by the Soviets and its churches turned over to the Orthodox. It only began operating legally again after the fall of communism. The church uses a mainly Orthodox liturgy, but it is loyal to the pope.
Husar went on Vatican Radio last month to say that "hope (for the title) hasn't vanished but patience and prudence are required."
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