MOSCOW (AFP) - The leaders of Europe's Orthodox churches yesterday called on newly elected Pope Benedict XVI to pursue better relations with Eastern Christians after centuries of rivalry and mistrust. They stressed the importance of constructive dialogue between the historically divided branches of Christianity to heal ancient rifts made worse in the 20th century by the upheavals of Nazism and communism. Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomaios, who is based in Istanbul, welcomed «with joy and hope» the election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as the new head of the Catholic Church and praised him as a man of «erudition and virtue.» «We believe the new pope, who is an accomplished theologian... values the theological and spiritual wealth of our Church and will be willing to cooperate with it and promote theological dialogue,» Vartholomaios said, according to an unofficial translation of his statement in Greek. «The fact that the new pope comes from the German nation, which experienced division for years and today plays an important role in the unity of Europe... gives us hope and confidence that he will be able to express the importance of unity, or at least of peaceful cooperation,» the statement said. The Orthodox Church in Istanbul is the most senior among the Orthodox churches and, as its head, Vartholomaios is the spiritual leader of 250 million worshippers in the world. John Paul II visited Istanbul in 1979, a year after he was elected pope, to announce the creation of a joint Orthodox-Catholic committee to resolve the differences between the two churches separated since 1054. On an historic visit to Athens in 2001 he expressed repentance for wrongs committed by the Catholic Church against Orthodox Christians over history, but tensions continue to run deep. In a meeting at the Vatican in July, the pope and Vartholomaios issued a joint declaration for the resumption of Orthodox-Catholic theological talks, suspended in 2000 after a row over the status of Eastern Catholic churches. «Our churches... must join forces in the work of spreading Christian values to modern man,» Russian Patriarch Alexis II said in a statement. «The world, which is losing its spiritual direction, badly needs our joint witness more than ever.» «I sincerely hope that the pontificate of Your Holiness will be marked by the development of good relations between our churches and fruitful Orthodox-Catholic dialogue,» he said in a message to the new pope. The divide between Rome-based and Eastern European Christianity dates back more than a millennium but deepened in the 20th century, when the Catholic Church was accused of colluding with the Nazis and of trying to extend its influence in Eastern Europe following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The row poisoned relations between Rome and majority Orthodox countries such as Greece, Serbia and Ukraine.