VATICAN CITY – Pope Benedict XVI and visiting Russian President Dmitry Medvedev agreed Thursday to upgrade Vatican-Kremlin relations to full diplomatic ties, the Vatican said.
The step forward on the diplomatic front comes at the same time as a warming in previously tense relations between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Vatican.
A Vatican statement said Benedict and Medvedev agreed that Russia will upgrade its representation at the Vatican from a special mission to embassy level and that the Vatican will reciprocate in Moscow.
The two men also discussed challenges to "security and peace" in the world and "themes of mutual interest such as the value of the family and the contribution of believers to the life of Russia," the Vatican said.
Medvedev, on a one-day visit to Rome, met with the German pope for 30 minutes, speaking through interpreters. He had earlier met with Premier Silvio Berlusconi.
After decades of hostility between the Vatican and the Kremlin during the Cold War, the major breakthrough came when former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev met with Pope John Paul II in December 1989.
But the lifting of restrictions on religion led to new tensions with the Orthodox church, which accused the Vatican of poaching for souls in traditional Orthodox territory — a charge the Vatican denied.
The standoff prevented John Paul II of fulfilling his wish of making a pilgrimage to Russia.
Vatican officials, however, say that despite improved atmosphere such a trip is not on Benedict's agenda now. The Vatican statement after Thursday's meeting did not mention it.
Benedict had met with Medvedev's predecessor, Vladimir Putin, two years ago. As a gift, Medvedev presented Benedict with 22 volumes of an encyclopedia on the Russian Orthodox Church to complete a set brought by Putin.