Pope John Paul II met with Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday afternoon, and told him that he was "praying for Russia". But while the Pope made a series of gestures aimed at improving relations with the Russian Orthodox Church, he did not get an invitation to visit Russia. During an earlier meeting with the Pope some years ago, Putin invited John Paul II to visit his country, but added: "As for a comprehensive visit, I can't do it without the Russian Orthodox Church's consent." Putin has said on many occasions that he wants to help end the dispute between the Vatican and the Orthodox Church, but that Russia would defend its faith and identity. Tensions between the Russian Orthodox, the dominant Christian faith in Russia, and the Catholic Church have deep historical roots, but have got worse since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early nineties. In a gesture of reconciliation, John Paul had an icon brought into the meeting that is much revered by Russian believers - the icon of the Mother of God of Kazan, which usually hangs in his private chapel. The Pope blessed the icon, and then Putin kissed it. The icon dates from 1579 and is revered by Russian believers for its purported ability to work miracles, including the rout of Polish invaders from Russia in the early 17th century. It hung in the Kazan Cathedral in Red Square in Moscow and the Kazan Cathedral in St Petersburg before being taken to the west during the Bolshevik revolution. A Catholic group bought the icon thirty years ago and gave it to the Pope.
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