Putin (R) meets Pope Francis during a private meeting at Vatican City. File photo/ Reuters
Russian President Vladimir Putin will hold talks with Pope Francis on Thursday, a day before Ukraine’s Catholic leaders meet at the Vatican to discuss the crisis in their country, and amid speculation that the visit could be a prelude to the first trip by a pope to Russia.
Putin, who has met Francis twice before, is due to arrive at the Vatican in the early afternoon at the start of a lightning visit to Italy that will also include talks with Italian leaders.
Ukraine, which remains a difficult issue in relations between the Vatican and Russia, is expected to be a main topic of discussions in the official papal library in the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace.
When they last met in 2015, the pope urged Putin to make a “sincere and great effort” to achieve peace in Ukraine and help bring an end to fighting between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russian separatist rebels in the East.
On Friday, leaders of Ukraine’s Catholic Church and Vatican officials begin two days of meetings to discuss various problems in their country, a former Soviet republic.
Ukraine’s religious world was made tense last year when the country’s Orthodox Church, which for centuries effectively had been under control of the Russian Orthodox Church, declared its independence and set up a national Church.
Russia opposes the Ukrainian Orthodox Church having autocephalous, or self-governing status, saying the move had more political than religious motives.
Putin has aligned himself closely with the Russian Orthodox Church and has accused the government in Kiev of flagrantly meddling in the life of Orthodoxy in Ukraine.
Thursday’s meeting between the pope and Putin will be their first since Francis and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill met in 2016, a landmark step in healing the 1,000-year-old rift between the Western and Eastern branches of Christianity.
Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, and Boris Yeltsin, the first president of post-Soviet Russia, had invited the late Pope John Paul to visit.
But a trip was not possible because of tensions between the Vatican and the Russian Orthodox Church, the largest and most influential in world Orthodoxy, with 165 million of the world’s 250 million Orthodox Christians.
Apart from his meeting three years ago with Kirill, which was the first in history between a Roman Catholic pope and a Russian Orthodox patriarch, Francis has made a number of visits to countries with predominantly Orthodox populations.
The latest were to Romania and to Bulgaria and North Macedonia earlier this year.
From the Vatican, Putin will meet with Italy’s prime minister and president and attend a conference on Italian-Russian dialogue at the foreign ministry.
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