Pope meets Putin, no discussion of church tensions

VATICAN CITY (REUTERS) - Pope Francis and Russian President Vladimir Putin met on Monday and discussed the Middle East and problems faced by Christians across the world, but did not touch on the strained relationship between the Vatican and the Orthodox Church.

The 35-minute meeting at the Vatican was the first between Pope Francis and Mr Putin, who met the pontiff's two immediate predecessors, Benedict and John Paul II.

"It was quite a cordial and constructive meeting," Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi told reporters after the encounter. Mr Putin had arrived around 45 minutes late because of transport problems.

Relations between the Catholic Church and Russia have long been uneasy because of accusations that the Vatican has tried to poach believers from the Orthodox Church, a charge it denies.

Mr Putin brought a greeting to the pope from Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, but did not talk about inter-church matters, Father Lombardi said. There was also no discussion of a possible visit to Russia by Pope Francis.

Mr Putin has embraced the Russian Orthodox Church as a moral authority, harnessed its influence as a source of political support and championed socially conservative values since starting a new, six-year term in May 2012.

The two leaders discussed the civil war in Syria and the pope stressed the need to end violence and bring assistance to the civilian population.

The Russian President, accompanied by ministers and business leaders, is due to meet Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta and members of the government in the north-eastern port city of Trieste on Tuesday.