Source AP ©

Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi visits Russia

During a brief visit to Russia Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi met with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The visit expected to bring progress on plans for a natural gas pipeline to Europe and the return of a church in Italy to Russian ownership.

Plans for Prodi's brief visit included signing an agreement reached earlier this year by Russian monopoly OAO Gazprom and Italy's Eni SpA to consider construction of a gas pipeline beneath the Black Sea, according to the Kremlin.

The South Stream pipeline would run under the sea from Russia to Bulgaria, and from there could split off to the north or south - or in both directions. Officials have said its capacity could be about 30 billion cubic meters a year.

Russia, which has had bruising disputes with the former Soviet republics Ukraine and Belarus, key transit countries for its gas deliveries, is seeking alternate export routes. European nations are hungry for Russian gas exports despite concerns about over-reliance on the energy giant.

Welcoming Prodi in the Kremlin, Putin said the volume of trade between Russia and Italy this year would likely exceed last year's record high of some US$30 billion (€20 billion). "The volume of cooperation is such we always have something to talk about," he said.

Prodi said Russia and Italy were "increasingly integrated." The two countries are "developing a policy of long-term friendship" based on "mutual understanding, cooperation and shared spiritual values," he said.

The Kremlin also said that Russian and Italian government officials, with Prodi and Putin looking on, were expected to sign a document of intent to return ownership of a Russian Orthodox Church in the Adriatic port city of Bari to Russia.

Prodi announced the decision to transfer ownership of the church - a gesture meant to improve long-strained relations between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church - during a visit by Putin in March.

The church was built in the early 20th century to welcome Russian pilgrims who traveled to Bari to pray near the relics of St. Nicholas of Myra. It became the property of the city of Bari in 1937 as the number of Russian Orthodox pilgrims dwindled following the Russian Revolution.

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