Russian Orthodox head pays 1st visit to Poland

The controversial head of Russia's Orthodox Church arrived Thursday in Poland for a trip hailed as a promising step in the thorny relationship between the two countries. But the historic visit could be overshadowed by the verdict in the case of punk rock provocateurs who stormed Moscow's main cathedral in an anti-Putin protest.

Patriarch Kirill, who has made no secret of his strong support for Russian President Vladimir Putin, received a state welcome from Poland's Guard of Honor on arriving in Warsaw at the invitation of the country's Catholic leaders. Noting that it was the first visit by the head of Russia's church to the largely Catholic country, he vowed that religion should help both nations overcome difficult issues between them.

Poles and Russians have a long and often painful history and tensions still frequently flare up. Before heading for prayers at Warsaw's Orthodox Cathedral, Kirill said he believes his visit will offer both churches a chance to "give thought to our past, present day and future."

The Orthodox leader and the head of Poland's Roman Catholic Church are to sign a joint message Friday asking both nations for mutual forgiveness, but the expected verdict in the Pussy Riot case was likely to draw some attention from the event. Some 800 people had joined a Facebook page promoting a rally in Warsaw in support of the members of the band.

The patriarch's reputation at home has been tarnished by several scandals, and protesters see his influence in the harsh treatment of the three women in the band, who on Friday will learn whether they will face years in prison for performing a "punk prayer" at an altar of the Christ the Savior cathedral in February.

The women maintain they were making a political statement about the cozy relationship between Putin and the Orthodox church. Opponents say Kirill has sold out to the Russian leader, even praising his two presidential terms as "God's miracle." He has described the punk performance as "devilish mockery" and part of a broader assault by "enemy forces" on the church, and ignored calls for mercy.

During the four-day visit, Kirill is to meet with Poland's church leaders and lawmakers and visit sites sacred to the nation's 600,000 Orthodox Church followers. Prime Minister Donald Tusk said the visit is a "very important step on the path to reconciliation."

Elderly Poles still talk bitterly about Moscow's "stab in the back," the attack from the East by the Soviet Red Army on Sept. 17, 1939, which further carved up the country just over two weeks after the German troops invaded Poland from the West, starting World War II.

They point to the murders of over 20,000 of their officers by Soviet secret police in 1940 in the Katyn forest and other sites and more than four decades of communist rule after the war. More recently, conspiracy theories continue to smolder more than two years after Polish President Lech Kaczynski and 95 others were killed in a plane crash in Russia, feelings fueled by a sense that the Russians were not fully cooperative in investigating the crash.

Relations between the Orthodox church and Poland's Catholic church have also been tense.

The Orthodox Church prevented Polish-born Pope John Paul II from making a hoped-for trip to Russia. Among issues causing tensions in recent years are Orthodox accusations that the Vatican has sought converts in traditionally Orthodox areas, particularly in eastern Europe. Rome has denied those charges.