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    MOSCOW, JANUARY 20, 2004, RIA NOVOSTI - Patriarch Alexis II of Moscow and All Russia has made it clear that Pope John Paul II's visit to this country will make no sense unless the Vatican takes concrete steps to stop proselytism in Russian territory and to guarantee the religious rights of the Orthodox Christian minority in western Ukraine.

    "It would be wrong to just meet before television cameras, thus demonstrating to public opinion that no problems exist between us. Problems do exist," the head of the Russian Orthodox Church pointed out as he spoke Tuesday with a group of British journalists invited to Russia by the RIA news agency.

    This was the first time in years that the Russian Patriarch had received a delegation of foreign pressmen in his residence.

    "If I meet with the Pope just to pose before TV cameras, my flock won't understand. Such a meeting must be preceded by specific agreements," Alexis II emphasized. At the same time, he indicated the Russian Orthodox Church's willingness to have a dialogue with the Catholic clergy.

    Speaking about the icon of Our Lady of Kazan held by the Vatican, the Patriarch remarked that an expert examination in April 2003 had provided conclusive evidence that this was a later copy of the genuine, miracle-working icon. The Vatican's holding is of a different size than the missing original, and must have been painted by a provincial master at the end of the 18th century or even later, he noted, expressing bewilderment at the mounting controversy around the icon. He stressed that the papal visit should not be linked to the return of the icon, but said he was hopeful that the painting would eventually find its way back home.

    Alexis II said he personally had no anti-Catholic feeling and that despite today's strain in the relations with the Vatican, the Russian Orthodox Church still continues intensive contacts with a number of Catholic dioceses, organizations, and educational institutions.

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