Is Vladimir Putin's Vatican visit a prelude to Pope Francis' flight to Russia?

The meeting between Pope Francis and Vladimir Putin on Thursday is the pair's third personal encounter.

In November 2013, just eight months after Francis took over in the Vatican, the Catholic leader and Russian president discussed a possible peace initiative for Syria. But after the meeting, Putin said Russia and the Vatican wanted to strengthen contacts in the fields of culture, science, education and health.

The second meeting, in June 2015, was about a year after Russia annexed Crimea, which made for a far tenser situation. That meeting lasted 50 minutes — quite lengthy as far as papal audiences go. The pope demanded "sincere and comprehensive efforts for peace" in Ukraine, the Vatican said, adding that the pair agreed a "climate of dialogue" had to be restored and that "all parties" had to adhere to the Minsk ceasefire agreements.

Russia trip in the cards?

Talks on Thursday will likely focus on the Christian presence in the Middle East and the situation in Ukraine, according to sources in the Church. But it's future travel arrangements that have grabbed the public's interest more than global security.

Could Pope Francis, people want to know, be planning a trip to Russia?

Speculation has been rife that Pope Francis could visit Moscow. No Catholic Church leader has yet entered the domain of Russian Orthodoxy. And since the days of Pope John Paul II, it has been a coveted destination for a papal trip.

Paolo Pezzi, the Catholic archbishop in Moscow, recently discussed the issue on Radio Vatican. A visit by the pope to Russia is "not impossible," he said — but then he also said it is "not necessary." In any case, Putin's third meeting with the pope has drawn more attention to the Catholic minority in Orthodox Russia, he added.

A bout of Christian jealousy?

After the announcement of Putin's trip, the Russian Orthodox Church said a visit to Russia by the head of the Catholic Church is "currently not on the agenda of bilateral relations."

"In our Church, many bishops, priests and believers are not ready to receive him," Metropolitan Hilarion, the head of the foreign office of the Orthodox Moscow Patriarchate, told the Swiss portal cath.ch.

In 2016, Francis met briefly with Patriarch Kirill I at Havana airport in Cuba. Francis was the first pope to meet with a Russian Orthodox Church leader after almost 1,000 years of religious division into the western Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. More recently, the church leaders' views differ on the Ukraine conflict and the independence of the Ukrainian churches.

But the head of the Catholic Church's enjoys a good reputation in Russia, and some suspect Kirill, who is intent on good ties with the Kremlin, could be jealous of the Argentine pope's popularity. In an opinion poll in 2016, three out of four Russians were in favor of the Catholic pope visiting their country.

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