During the only previous meeting between the Pope and the Russian leader-- in December 1991-- the question of religious liberty was at the forefront of discussions. A highly placed source at the Vatican suggested that the same topic would be high on the agenda for the coming meeting, in view of recent complaints that the new Russian law on religious organizations has restricted the activities of some Catholic pastors. Vatican-watchers have also speculated that the visit might have some effect on the tense relations between the Vatican and the Russian Orthodox Church.
Vatican sources say that the Holy See has generally appreciated Yeltsin's posture regarding the religious-freedom bill; the Russian leader vetoed an earlier, more restrictive version of the bill. Today, Vatican diplomats argue that the primary problem with the new law lies not in the wording of the statute but in the interpretation placed on the law-- a position which allows them to praise Yeltsin while criticizing the law itself.
The tensions between the Vatican and the Orthodox Church center on the situation in Ukraine, where the resurgence of the Eastern-rite Catholic Church (which was forcibly suppressed under the Soviet regime) has provoked complaints of "proselytes" from Orthodox authorities. The re-establishment of the Ukrainian Catholic hierarchy has chilled relations with the Moscow Patriarchate, which sees the Catholic Church as a competitor in Ukraine.
While President Yeltsin has no official role in Orthodox Church affairs, observers believe that he might serve as a go-between to help reinvigorate Catholic-Orthodox contacts, since he is well known as a close friend and adviser of the Russian Patriarch Alexei II. There is little doubt that the Russian president will report to the Patriarch on his discussions with the Pope, although Vatican officials do not expect any breakthrough to result from their talks.