Yeltsin meets pope, skirt issue of papal visit to Russia

VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope John Paul II and Russian President Boris Yeltsin held long, warm talks Tuesday that fell short of arranging a papal visit or a meeting with the head of the Russian Orthodox Church.
The talks in John Paul’s private library lasted 50 minutes, and the Vatican described them as “extremely cordial.”
But Yeltsin’s spokesman, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, said the two men did not even discuss a visit by the much-traveled pope to Russia or a first-ever meeting with the Russian Orthodox patriarch, which the Vatican has been trying to set up.
The pope still has a standing invitation to Moscow, first issued by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1989, papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said after the talks.
Such a visit would be unlikely anytime soon because of long-standing differences between the Vatican and the Russian Orthodox Church. While restrictions on religion were lifted with the fall of communism, that opened Russia up to what Orthodox leaders call overzealous missionary work by Catholics.
The pope pleaded with Yeltsin to block passage of Russia’s religion law, which he signed in September. The legislation enshrined Orthodoxy as the leading faith while curbing the rights of other churches.
Yeltsin’s spokesman said the Russian leader talked about the law and the circumstances of Catholics in Russia.
“John Paul II was extremely satisfied with this meeting,” Yastrzhembsky said.
The Vatican said the two discussed “the contribution of the faithful toward an ever more harmonious and united society.”
The pope and Yeltsin, who both have been ailing, seemed pleased during a photo session after the meeting.
It was the second meeting between Yeltsin and the pope.
The Polish-born pope had a closer relationship with Gorbachev, whose 1989 visit was the first by a Kremlin chief to the Vatica