By Victor Simpson
AOSTA, Italy (AP) - While still waiting for the go-ahead to visit Moscow, Pope John Paul II received an unexpected boost from Russian President Vladimir Putin for his forays into the former Soviet Union. Vatican officials accompanying John Paul on a 12-day vacation in the Italian Alps confirmed this week that the pope will travel Sept. 22-27 to the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan and Armenia.
The trip is part of John Paul's efforts for better relations with Orthodox Christians, as well as to pay tribute to a tiny Roman Catholic community deported to central Asia during the Stalinist years.
In his most recent trip to Ukraine last month, the pope received sharp rebukes from Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II, who accused the Catholic church of poaching in traditional Orthodox territory.
In an interview published Monday in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, Putin praised John Paul and said his trips to eastern Europe -including Ukraine - "have a positive element."
Vatican officials said privately they were pleased by Putin's remarks, but have made no public comment, apparently to avoid a clash with Alexy. The pope's spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, described the Kazakhstan pilgrimage as a "pastoral trip," meaning John Paul will be meeting Roman Catholics, a tiny minority among the predominant Orthodox and Muslim communities.
The second stop will be Armenia, where the pope will take part in celebrations organized by the country's ancient Orthodox church to mark the 1,700th anniversary of the arrival of Christianity.
John Paul sees a Moscow visit as crowning his efforts to bring the Western and Eastern branches of Christianity closer together.
"I would be truly happy if relations between the Russian Orthodox church and the Holy See developed positively, opening new horizons," Putin said in the interview.