AGHIOS ANDREAS – Envoys from the Vatican and Orthodox churches plan to revive efforts to further close their nearly 1,000-year-old divide and seek ways to allow an historic trip to Russia by Pope Benedict XVI, a Roman Catholic official said yesterday on the sidelines of a religious conference near Athens. The failure to visit the world’s most populous Orthodox nation was a major unfulfilled goal for the late Pope John Paul II, whose outreach to Orthodox churches was a hallmark of his papacy. Russian church leaders, though, claim the Vatican is trying to expand into traditional Orthodox lands through Eastern Rite churches that follow Orthodox tradition but are loyal to the pope. A joint committee is expected to be formed within the next 12 months to «set out an agenda» on improving relations, said the Reverend Brian Farrell, head of a Vatican delegation attending a global conference on Christian cooperation and trends sponsored by the World Council of Churches at a seaside site northeast of Athens. Farrell, a member of a Vatican council on Christian unity, told The Associated Press that talks with Russian delegates during the conference suggest that proposals for a papal visit could get a fresh hearing because of Benedict’s background as an eminent theologian. «The Orthodox always say that they are more comfortable speaking on a theological level about our differences and what we have in common,» said Farrell. «Pope Benedict is someone they can understand.» John Paul drew criticism from some conservative Orthodox for his high-profile style and travels into the Orthodox heartland. He visited some predominantly Orthodox nations – including Greece in 2001 – and built close ties with Ecumenical Vartholomaios, the «first among equals» of the spiritual leaders for the world’s 200 million Orthodox. Benedict has expressed a desire to continue dialogue with Orthodox churches. He also met with Metropolitan Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church’s Foreign Relations Department, who attended the papal installation Mass last month. But the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Alexy II, only hinted that he could consider removing his opposition to a papal visit. «There cannot be a visit for the sake of a visit. There cannot be a meeting purely for television cameras… The future will show,» the Interfax news agency quoted him as saying last month. Rifts between the two ancient branches of Christianity began as early as the fifth century over the rising influence of the papacy and later over wording of the creed, or confession of faith. The split was sealed in 1054 with an exchange of anathema – or damnation – between the Vatican and the patriarch of Constantinople, now Istanbul, Turkey, and still the spiritual center of Orthodoxy. The collapse of the Soviet bloc added to the tensions, as both Roman Catholics and Orthodox churches tried to reassert their spiritual roles across Eastern Europe and elsewhere. But Farrell expressed optimism that the new papacy could widen the common ground between Orthodox and the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics. «We definitely feel – I think on both sides – that we are at a point where we can begin to build a much more positive relationship,» Farrell said at the conference, which brought together more than 700 Christian leaders, theologians and others from nearly every Christian faith. The Vatican is not a full member of the Geneva-based World Council of Churches, but cooperates closely on many levels. Orthodox churches are part of the organization, which also includes Anglicans and nearly every Protestant denomination. «The very important theological dialogue between Catholics and Orthodox – which has been stalled for the last number of years – is on the point of being restarted,» said Farrell. «It’s a very important step for us.» In August, the Vatican sent back to Moscow an 18th century replica of the Mother of God of Kazan icon, a work that first appeared in the Volga River city of Kazan in 1579 and is revered by many Russian believers. The copy of the icon was smuggled to the West after the 1917 Russian Revolution and had hung in John Paul’s private chapel.