The pope meets the patriarch: Why are Russians skeptical of historic summit?

Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill's meeting Friday in Cuba will be the first ever between the leaders of the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox Churches. But some say that the meeting was made without discussion.

Ivan Sekretarev/Andrew Medichini/AP/File
Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill (r.) serves the Christmas Mass in the Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow last month, Pope Francis prays during an audience at the Vatican last month.

When Pope Francis meets Patriarch Kirill in Cuba on Friday, it will be undeniably historic.

Not only will it be the first meeting between leaders of the Roman Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church since the two churches split almost a thousand years ago. It could also provide an opportunity to sit down together and address the escalating plight of Christians in the Middle East, a responsibility that both churches claim.

But it may also unleash a wave of controversy within Russia.

While the Vatican has been pushing for rapprochement with their eastern counterpart for decades, some in Moscow complain that the event, almost certainly blessed by the Kremlin itself, may be overriding caution. They say that the decision to hold the pope-patriarch meeting was made without adequate preparation or discussion within the church – a church that still regards the Vatican with a great deal of suspicion.

"There really should have been more discussion within the Orthodox Church about taking such a momentous step," says Father Vsevolod Chaplin, former spokesman for the Russian Orthodox Church. "Much will depend on the nature of the declaration we expect the meeting to produce. It will be the subject of much study among the clergy and the laity here, and it's too soon to say whether it will be accepted by Russian believers or not."

'To help Christians'

The two churches have gone their separate ways for a thousand years and a wide historical, doctrinal, and cultural gulf still separates them. But efforts to reconcile have occurred sporadically. Pope John Paul II made some progress over a decade ago in mending fences with the Patriarch of Constantinople (present day Istanbul), who is the symbolic leader of eastern Orthodoxy.

But Constantinople was overrun by the Muslim Turks almost 600 years ago, and its church lost any connection to political power. The Russian Orthodox Church on the other hand, forged a strong bond with the expanding Russian state, one that is now briskly reviving after 70 years of persecution by the Soviet Communists.

It's that Kremlin link that gives much more than symbolic heft to Pope Francis' upcoming meeting with Patriarch Kirill, who can claim to be the active leader of almost 200 million Orthodox believers in the former Soviet Union. Polls suggest that it is one of the most staunchly God-fearing regions on earth.

Everyone agrees that the two churches should set aside a millennium of acrimony so as to find a way to protect the ancient Christian communities and shrines in Syria and the broader Middle East. The two institutions differ over the righteousness of using of military force – the Russian church strongly backs the Kremlin's current intervention in Syria, while the Vatican is decidedly more pacifist. But any joint statement calling for action to save beleaguered Christians will play well for Moscow at a time when Russian air power, supporting Syria's secular government, is successfully pushing back Islamist rebels on the battlefields of Syria.

"For me it's increasingly clear that to help Christians, it's absolutely necessary to fight terrorism. There may be issues about that" with the Catholic church, Chaplin says.

And the rare charisma displayed by Pope Francis, which has deeply impressed many in Russia, is one reason the ice has broken after so many centuries. "Obviously the personality of this pope is a major factor," Chaplin adds.

A boost to traditionalism?

But Chaplin, who was abruptly fired by Patriarch Kirill in December for arguing that the patriarch was monopolizing power and stifling debate within the clergy, says the announcement of the patriarch-pope meeting came as a surprise to most Russian believers.

It has long been a central argument of the Russian church that the Vatican has lost control over its flock in the West and opened the door to what the Orthodox Church views as a wave of godless liberalism, which allegedly encourages lax female moral standards, gay rights, and atheism.

In Russia, the church has urged the Kremlin to crack down on irreligious forces. It has sponsored laws to ban "homosexual propaganda" and urged tough prosecution for displays of "heresy," such as an irreverent performance by the punk group Pussy Riot in a Moscow cathedral a few years ago.

"In principle this meeting is of huge importance to Christians here in Russia, for its potential to strengthen ties with traditional-thinking Christians in the rest of the world," says Chaplin. "It's not just a critical response to the tragedies unfolding in the Middle East, though that is a major reason. It's also in the context of attempts to diminish the role of Christianity in the West, in response to the advances of totalitarian secularism there."

Distrust of the Vatican

But some Russian believers worry that, contrary to Father Chaplin's hope that reconciliation between the Orthodox and Catholic churches may help to stiffen the Vatican's spine against the tidal wave of Western liberalism, the opposite might occur. They point to the 1990s, when Russia's church complained that Catholics were taking advantage of Orthodoxy's weakness after seven decades of Soviet repression to try and proselytize among Russians.

"The main obstacle to any meeting between our churches" was Catholic attempts to expand into Orthodox territory in the past, says Alexander Pelin, rector of a religious school in the central Russian city of Saransk. "In the 1990s, the Catholic Church opened a number of parishes in Siberia, prompting major worries that they were trying to entice Orthodox believers away from their faith. Gradually, the Catholic attitude has become wiser, and the position of the Orthodox Church stronger."

Most Russian media coverage stresses the Kremlin's hidden hand in organizing the upcoming meeting.

"This was organized by the Russian leadership, and it's not even particularly convenient for Kirill. That's why the church isn't saying very much publicly about it," says Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the independent Center for Political Technologies in Moscow.

"There are a lot of people in the Russian church who are deeply suspicious of Catholics, and don't much trust the patriarch either. So as not to give internal opponents time to organize themselves, the church leadership agreed to hold this meeting [with the pope] behind the peoples' backs. I fear this meeting will be completely politicized, and carry no religious significance at all," he says.

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