Russian President Vladimir Putin is scheduled to meet with Pope John Paul II Monday during his two-day visit to Italy. There has been speculation in Italy that Putin might invite the pope to visit Russia.
Such an invitation would lay the groundwork for the first meeting between the pope and a Russian patriarch.
But Orthodox officials have objected to such a meeting. The Orthodox Patriarch, Alexy II, has long said that disputes between the two churches must be resolved before he or other church officials would agree to meet with John Paul.
``For us, a meeting between the pope and the patriarch should open up a new page in relations between us, so it's not just protocol but a sign of fundamentally different relations,'' Igor Vyzhanov, a church official responsible for relations with the Roman Catholic Church, told The Associated Press.
``And that means improvement before any meeting.''
Vyzhanov said the two key disputes involve the Catholics' use of property the Orthodox consider their own in Ukraine, and Catholic missions in Russia itself.
``There is uncontrolled (Catholic) missionary activity on Russian territory, and they're turning to traditionally Orthodox believers,'' Vyzhanov said.
He said that a meeting between the two religious leaders was theoretically possible outside either Russia or the Vatican, but that such a meeting would still have to be based on progress in inter-church relations. The pope and the patriarch were scheduled to meet in Vienna in 1997, but the meeting was called off over the unresolved disputes.
The Catholic weekly Famiglia Cristiana newspaper said last month Putin would officially invite the pope to visit Moscow during their meeting.
Ecumenical experts in Rome said that despite the Roman Catholic pontiff's wish to visit Moscow and improve relations with the Russian Orthodox church, it would be unlikely that he could so without the approval of Russian Orthodox leaders.
John Paul II was invited to Moscow by former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev and later by Russian president Boris Yeltsin.