The Vatican's top ecumenical official said Monday the "ice is thawing" in relations with the Russian Orthodox Church, but said Pope Benedict XVI would not be able to visit Russia any time soon.
Cardinal Walter Kasper told a news conference that Moscow Patriarch Alexy II has not excluded a meeting but that key issues had to be resolved first, most importantly the Russian Orthodox Church's accusation that the Roman Catholic Church is poaching for converts in traditionally Orthodox lands. The Vatican denies the charge.
"So I don't see a meeting in the next year," Kasper said. "We are working for this, and we also are working to overcome these impediments, but it's difficult because we have a different definition of proselytism, above all else."
"It's clear that no traditional church wants to 'proselytize,"' he said. "But they have a concept (of the word) that is different and a bit larger. So it won't be easy, but we hope it will be facilitated."
Overall, however, he said relations with the Russian Orthodox Church, as well as with other Orthodox churches, had improved greatly over the past four decades.
"Concerning the Russian Orthodox Church, the ice is thawing," he said. "An ecumenical Ice Age doesn't exist."
Kasper spoke to reporters at the Italian foreign press association on ecumenical developments as well as the 40th anniversary this week of the 1965 Vatican document Nostra Aetate, which revolutionized the Catholic Church's relations with Jews. Kasper is in charge of the Vatican's relations both with other Christians and with Jews.
Kasper reported some ecumenical progress but also what he called worrisome developments, particularly with the growth of Pentecostal movements that he accused of "aggressive proselytism" at the expense of the Catholic Church in places such as Brazil.
He cited Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes, who told a recent meeting of the world's bishops that the Catholic population in Brazil is shrinking 1 percent each year, due largely to the growth of Protestant movements.
Kasper said with such "aggressive fundamentalism" from old and new movements, "it is not possible for the most part to establish a dialogue based on respect. Dialogue presupposes mutual respect, and with these sects it's not possible," he said.
However, Monsignor Brian Farrell, secretary in Kasper's Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, highlighted positive developments in relations with more mainstream Christian groups.
He cited a previously unpublicized annual meeting of representatives known as the Secretary General of the World Communion, in which Catholics, Orthodox, evangelical Protestants and even Quakers discuss theological and other issues dividing them.
During this year's meeting, two evangelical groups approached the Vatican to open a dialogue, Farrell said.
"These are points of development," he said. "Naturally ... the theological, dogmatic problems with the Protestants must for the most part still be confronted and resolved. But that's what dialogue is for."
"We should not think that it will be done quickly; it will take a long time, but it will go forward."
A top Vatican envoy will visit Russia for several days starting on Wednesday, the Russian news agency Itar-Tass quoted the Russian foreign ministry as saying.
During the visit, Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, the Vatican's foreign minister, will meet Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the report said. "The Vatican's position is very important for Russia," the ministry said, according to Itar-Tass, AP reported. V.A.