Defying the Russian Orthodox Church's stance, one of Ukraine's top religious leaders said Wednesday he sees no obstacles to greater cooperation between the Orthodox Church and the Vatican, Associated Press reported.

The statement, which was made during an interview with The Associated Press, signaled yet another rift between Russia and the former Soviet republic of Ukraine, where pro-Western leaders came to power earlier this year, NCTimes informed.

The Moscow Patriarchate accuses the Catholics of encroaching on its territory and blocked the late Pope John Paul II's long-held wish to visit Russia, the world's most populous Orthodox nation.

Patriarch Filaret, head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church's Kiev Patriarchate, said the churches have much in common and should cooperate in emphasizing the importance of the family and moral values.

"Today the task and mission of Christian churches -- Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant -- is to support moral values and support spirituality and morality in European civilization," Filaret told AP. "We don't need to be afraid of Rome, or the Greek Catholics."

The new pope, Benedict XVI, already has declared a "fundamental commitment" to heal the divide between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches.

Unifying the two churches is "desirable but today it is not realistic," Filaret said, but he added that greater cooperation is possible.

Cardinal Walter Kasper, a German prelate who is president of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, declined to comment on Filaret's remarks, noting that he had not yet read them.

But he noted, in a telephone conversation with AP in Rome, that Filaret "doesn't speak for the other patriarchs."

The Kiev patriarchate is outside the fold of the Moscow patriarchate, which has been among the Vatican's harshest critics on contentious issues like the Vatican's alleged evangelism in the former Soviet Union and property disputes.

The Russian church has accused Catholics of poaching souls on its traditional territory, sparking tension between the churches since the 1991 Soviet collapse. An estimated 600,000 Catholics reside in Russia, and the Vatican insists it is only looking out for its flock.

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II, in a newspaper interview published Wednesday, said the Vatican would have to make the main effort to heal troubled relations between the two churches.

"We warmly welcome recent statements by Pope Benedict XVI in which he spoke of Christian unity and the need for concrete steps to improve ties between the churches. We hope that such steps will be made by the Catholics in order to change for the better Orthodox-Catholic relations," he told the Russian government daily Rossikaya Gazeta.

The Ukrainian church split into three parts after this ex-Soviet republic gained independence, in part due to the refusal of the Russian Orthodox patriarchy to cede control over this mainly Orthodox nation of 48 million.

The Kiev patriarchate, which claims independence from Moscow and boasts more than 2,700 congregations throughout Ukraine, warmly welcomed a visit by Pope Benedict's predecessor John Paul II in 2001.

The Russian Orthodox Church strongly objected to the papal visit, complaining in part that the presence of Eastern Rite Catholics in western Ukraine was an infringement on their traditional territory. The Moscow Patriarchate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which is under the Russian Orthodox Church, also opposed the papal visit.

Eastern Rite Catholics, or Greek Catholics, follow Orthodox rituals but pledge allegiance to the pope, causing some Orthodox to accuse them of attracting believers who would otherwise be Orthodox. Filaret said, however, that he has good relations with the Greek Catholics, and that questions of property -- one of the most devisive issues -- have almost been resolved.


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