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Putin and Pope Francis discuss drive for peace in Syria

Russian President Vladimir Putin has met Pope Francis in what the Vatican described as a "cordial and constructive meeting." Putin later dined with Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian ex-leader now lumbered with litigation.

Vladimir Putin and Pope Francis spent 35 minutes in talks on Monday, the first papal audience for the Russian president since Benedict XVI resigned his post.

The Vatican described the discussions as "cordial" in a subsequent statement, saying the two parties "focused on various questions of common interest, especially in relation to the life of the Catholic community in Russia."

On more topical affairs, Putin and the pope paid "special attention" to the conflict in Syria.

"Emphasis was placed on the urgency of the need to bring an end to the violence and to ensure necessary humanitarian assistance for the population as well as to promote concrete initiatives for a peaceful solution to the conflict, favoring negotiation and involving the various ethnic and religious groups, recognizing their essential role in society," the Vatican's statement said.

Putin and the pope discussed the conflict as the United Nations set a date of January 22 for long-sought Syrian peace talks.

Greeting from the patriarch

The Russian leader's visit also coincided with hopes of rapprochement between the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches.

Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said Putin brought a greeting to the pope from Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, but did not discuss inter-church matters. A possible papal visit to Russia was also not discussed.

A joint event on November 12 in Moscow and Rome, where Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill both entertained high-profile visitors on home turf, had prompted hopes of the new pontiff either visiting Moscow or inviting the patriarch to Italy. Metropolitan Hilarion, the foreign minister of the Russian Orthodox Church, told French newspaper "le Figaro" on Monday that such a meeting was now "more and more realistic."

Prime ministers, past and present

Putin traveled to Italy for two days with a large delegation, including Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.

As well as scheduled meetings with President Giorgio Napolitano and former premier Romano Prodi, Putin dined on Monday evening with ex-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Berlusconi, who on Wednesday could face expulsion from the Italian parliament following his tax fraud conviction, denied media rumors that he might leave the country for Russia.

On Tuesday, Putin was expected in the port city of Trieste for an Italy-Russia trade summit hosted by current Prime Minister Enrico Letta.

msh/ccp (AFP, dpa, Reuters)