TARPON SPRINGS, Florida – The spiritual leader of the world’s 200 million-plus Orthodox Christians said he is eager to meet with Pope Benedict XVI sometime in the coming year in an effort to heal the longstanding rift between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches. Visiting this heavily Greek community northwest of Tampa on Thursday for the annual Feast of the Epiphany celebration, Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomaios told reporters that the pope plans an official visit sometime this year to his headquarters in Istanbul. «We have a very good relationship with the present pope, Benedict XVI, and I’m in the very happy position to announce to you that we are going to restart the dialogue on the international global level between the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church,» Vartholomaios said in Greek through an interpreter, Archbishop Demetrios, who is primate of the Greek Orthodox Church in America. The last official talks between the two churches five years ago broke off without an agreement on the theological issues that have divided them for almost 1,000 years. Vartholomaios had received a warm reception from the Vatican after inviting the pope to Turkey for the Feast of St Andrew in November. But the plans hit a snag when the government of Turkey, which is 99 percent Muslim, instead of approving the visit, issued its own invitation to Benedict for an unspecified date in 2006. Because Benedict is also the head of state of the Vatican, any visit to Turkey would need to be coordinated with the Turkish government. Vartholomaios said on Thursday that «within this year that has already begun, the new pope is going to visit officially the Ecumenical Patriarchy.» Both Benedict and Vartholomaios appear deeply committed to bridging the rift between their estranged churches and helping to unite two of the largest branches of Christianity. «The commitment of the Catholic Church to the search for Christian unity is irreversible,» the pope said in June. The Rev. Ronald Roberson, associate director of the secretariat for ecumenical and interreligious affairs at the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, said many people are waiting to see if the new pope will continue the efforts of his predecessor, John Paul II, to repair relations with the Orthodox Church. Thus, a visit to Turkey would be significant. «I think Benedict and Vartholomaios are committed to getting it going again,» Roberson said. Pope John Paul II was praised by Greek religious and political leaders for his efforts to ease the division between the churches. John Paul II visited Greece in 2001, the first pope to do so in nearly 1,300 years, meeting with Archbishop Christodoulos, the head of the Greek Orthodox Church. 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 anathemas – or damnations – between the Vatican and the patriarch of Constantinople, now Istanbul 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. The status of Eastern Rite Catholics in former Soviet bloc states was the primary issue that kept officials of the two churches apart when they met in the United States in 2000 for the last official International Theological Dialogue, Archbishop Demetrios said. Vartholomaios was in Tarpon Springs to preside over the community’s 100th celebration of the Epiphany, which for Orthodoxy marks the baptism of Jesus at the River Jordan. About 80,000 were expected to descend on the small town for the Orthodox ceremonies and celebration of Greek culture, including the «Dive for the Cross» in which teenage boys try to be the first to retrieve a wooden cross from the bottom of Spring Bayou. It has grown to be the largest Orthodox Epiphany ceremony in North America and is overshadowed only by the world’s largest one in Piraeus. Today, Vartholomaios is to make a quick trip to New Orleans, where he is scheduled to be joined by Roman Catholic Archbishop Alfred Hughes for a visit to flood-damaged areas of the Lower Ninth Ward.