Moscow (AFP) - The Vatican's de facto foreign minister met a top official of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow Monday, amid expectations of further rapprochement between two of Christianity's biggest churches.
Pietro Parolin, the number two in the Vatican hierarchy, sat down with Metropolitan Hilarion, the Russian Orthodox Church's external relations chief, as part of a four-day official visit to meet top clerics and officials.
The website of the Moscow Patriarchate showed a picture of Parolin clasping hands with Hilarion and holding talks in a room decorated with Orthodox icons.
The clerics discussed "key topics of bilateral relations... in the context of the current international situation," the site said.
Relations between the Orthodox and Roman Catholic branches of Christianity have been virtually nonexistent since the so-called "great schism" of 1054, when Christianity split between Catholicism and Orthodoxy -- helping shape modern Europe and the Middle East.
But closer ties with other faiths and branches of Christianity have been a priority for Pope Francis since he became pope in 2013.
In a historic encounter in February 2016, Francis met and embraced Patriarch Kirill, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, in Cuba in the first such meeting since the schism nearly 1,000 years before.
In the week leading up to his visit, Parolin had spoken of a Francis visit to Russia.
Parolin told Italy's Corriere della Sera newspaper that preparations for a long-awaited Francis visit to Russia would not be on the agenda during his meetings.
But he added: "With God's help however, I hope it can make some contribution in this direction."
No previous pope in the modern era has visited Russia.
On Monday, Parolin and Hilarion "particularly noted the important significance for Orthodox and Catholic relations of the historical meeting of the Moscow Patriarch and Pope Francis in Havana," the Moscow Patriarchate site said.
The two also discussed the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine, with Hilarion raising cases of "political statements and aggressive actions" by representatives of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which is loyal to the Vatican, the site said.
Parolin is scheduled to meet Kirill and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Tuesday before holding talks with President Vladimir Putin in Sochi on Wednesday.