Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived in Rome yesterday for a lightning visit including talks with the Pope and Italy’s populist government, which has called for an easing of sanctions despite Moscow’s ongoing crisis with the West.
Yesterday’s meeting came a day before the Pope receives leaders of Ukraine’s Greek Catholic Church.
Pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine are mostly Russian Orthdodox, while those they fight are Orthodox and Greek Catholic.
Kremlin advisor Yuri Ushakov said on Wednesday that “for the time being a possible invitation for the Pope to visit Russia is not on the agenda.”
As at press time, the Pope and Putin were expected to discuss matters including “preserving Christian holy sites in Syria”, the Kremlin said.
Francis first met Putin in 2013, as the Roman Catholic Church sought to improve ties with the Russian Orthodox Church. Only in 2009 did the Vatican and Moscow re-establish full diplomatic ties which were severed during Soviet times.
Relations have improved since the coming to power in the same year of Patriarch Kirill, who headed up the Russian Orthodox Church’s diplomatic arm for years. The Russian Orthodox Church has frequently accused the Catholic Church of proselytising in Russia, an Orthodox Christian country of 144 million.
The Pope in 2016 held a historic meeting with Kirill in Cuba, the first encounter between the heads of the two largest Christian churches since Christianity split into Western and Eastern branches in the 11th Century, an event known as “The Great Schism.”
After meeting the Pope, Putin will hold talks with Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and President Sergio Mattarella. Far-right Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini has often expressed admiration for Putin, and his coalition government advocates reviewing EU sanctions against Russia.
“They are pushing for a rapid abolition of the anti-Russian sanctions introduced by the US and the EU,” Putin said in an interview with Corriere della Sera.
The US and EU have progressively imposed sanctions on Russia since its annexation of Crimea in 2014 and Moscow’s involvement in the conflict in eastern Ukraine, including the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17.