VATICAN CITY Pope Benedict and his cardinals discussed Catholic relations with other Christians on Friday, highlighting efforts to work closely with the Orthodox and to meet the challenge of fast-growing Protestant churches.
The closed-door meeting, held on the eve of a ceremony to install 23 new cardinals, took place amid progress with the Orthodox -- who broke from Rome in 1054 -- but growing fragmentation in the Protestant and Anglican world.
A statement late on Friday said the cardinals also spoke about relations with Jews and Muslims, including what it called the "encouraging sign" sent by 138 Islamic scholars who last month invited Christian leaders to a broad inter-faith dialogue.
The Roman Catholic Church, with 1.1 billion of the world's 2 billion Christians, seeks better ties with other churches partly to strengthen the Christian message in the world.
"We made good progress with the Orthodox in Ravenna," said Cardinal Walter Kasper, head of the department for Christian unity, referring to a Catholic-Orthodox meeting last month that agreed the Pope was the leading prelate of Christianity.
The Russian Orthodox Church, with more than half the world's 220 million Orthodox, quit that meeting in protest against the presence of an Estonian Orthodox Church aligned to the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, today's Istanbul.
"We are working now in Constantinople and Moscow that they find a solution or a compromise. It's a political question, not a theological one," Kasper told journalists.
The Russian Orthodox Church, which has become more active on the ecumenical scene since the fall of communism, chafes under the tradition that gives pride of place to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomos, despite the fact his local church is tiny.
Kasper said a historic meeting between Pope Benedict and the Alexiy, the Russian Orthodox Patriarch, would help improve relations but did not say when or where it might take place.
Kasper said talks with the Orthodox could not restore the hierarchy of the ancient church, which gave second place to Constantinople, but that the Orthodox agreed last month for the first time that the Pope still held first place.
"This can only be the Bishop of Rome," he said, using one of Benedict's titles. "There is no other candidate."
On relations with Anglicans, Kasper said the 77-million member Anglican Communion was in "a very difficult situation" with the challenges by traditionalists -- many from the Third World -- against liberal bishops in western countries.
The Anglican Communion is in internal crisis over the ordination of women and openly homosexual bishops.
"We hope they make a decision very soon. They cannot postpone all this crisis. There must be a decision made. But it is not in our hands."
Relations with Protestant Churches were getting more difficult because of "an inner fragmentation" among them, Kasper said. "Some of them have turned to liberal (positions) and there are now new ethical problems dividing them," he said.
He said that evangelical churches were spreading quickly and noted there were now 400 million Pentecostals around the world.
These two conservative Christian movements have been spreading especially rapidly in Latin America, often wooing away the faithful from the Catholic Church there.
"We must not ask first what is wrong with the Pentecostals but ask what is wrong with our pastoral work and come to a spiritual renewal," he said.
(Editing by Andrew Roche)