Why meeting between pope and Russian church leader is a big deal

Popes John Paul II and Benedict and their Russian Orthodox have failed in past attempts to organize meetings. Will Pope Francis succeed?

Ivan Sekretarev/Andrew Medichini/AP/File
Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, right, serves the Christmas Mass in the Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow, Russia, on Thursday, Jan. 7, 2016 and Pope Francis prays during an audience at the Vatican on Saturday. Pope Francis and the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church will meet in Cuba next week in a historic step to heal the 1,000-year-old schism that divided Christianity between East and West, both churches announced Friday.

Decades of diplomacy between Russian patriarch, and the Vatican, that began under Pope John Paul II have finally come to fruition.

Pope Francis plans to travel to Cuba later this month to meet Patriarch Kirill, leader of the Russian Orthodox church, marking the first meeting between a pope and a Russian patriarch since the eastern and western branches of Christianity split nearly 1,000 years ago.

Russian Orthodox Church, the largest church in Orthodoxy and the most powerful, with two-thirds of the world's Orthodox Christians, has always kept its distance from the Vatican. The split in 1054 occurred amid disagreements over theology and became two separate faith traditions: Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians.

Popes John Paul II and Benedict and their Russian Orthodox counterparts have failed in past attempts to organize meetings, largely because of differences which the Russian church has labeled as “actions of the Greek Catholics in Ukraine and proselytism of Catholic missionaries in the canonical territory of the Moscow Patriarchate,” the Atlantic reported.

The tension centers on the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, the country's second-largest, which follows eastern church rites but answers to the Holy See. The Russian Orthodox Church has considered western Ukraine its traditional territory and has resented papal influence there, according to the AP.

Yet, despite the decades of unsolved differences, the two churches are now willing to meet, a decision driven mostly by current turmoil facing Christians in several parts of the world, and particularly in the Middle East. Both the Vatican and the Orthodox Church have long been vocal in denouncing Islamic extremist attacks in the Middle East, North and Central Africa, and in some other regions, in which radical Islamists have waged wars on Christian populations, by perpetrating genocidal acts, and often causing a rift between Muslims and Christians.

“In this tragic situation, we need to put aside internal disagreements and pool efforts to save Christianity in the regions where it is subject to most severe persecution," Metropolitan Illarion, foreign policy chief of the Russian Orthodox Church, told the Associated Press.

But that isn’t the only reason why the meeting is a big deal, given the complicated history between the two churches. What are some of the other issues underlying the Feb. 12 meeting?

“Kirill and Metropolitan Hilarion must know that, at the moment, they are losing Ukraine. The most active, vital parts of Ukrainian Orthodoxy are those that have broken their communion with the Moscow Patriarchate, not least because of the patriarchate’s acquiescence to Putin’s aggression in Crimea and the Donbas,” the National Review wrote, saying that Kirill has a long strategy of wanting to underscore his claim to the leadership of the Orthodox world.

The Orthodox leader is also set on advancing two other strategic goals, “postponing a final rupture between the Moscow Patriarchate and Ukrainian Orthodoxy, and further complicating the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church’s relationship with Rome, according to the magazine.”

Pope Francis part will push religious freedoms for Catholics in Russian and Ukraine. As the National Review reported, the “Catholic Church’s activities are severely circumscribed in Russia, and Catholicism is on the way to being extinguished in Crimea.”

Francis will also want to "create an atmosphere in which this first meeting with Kirill doesn’t turn into a one-off affair but is, rather, the beginning of a regularization of contacts between pope and patriarch.”

For Francis, the meeting could be a major development in the Vatican's long effort to bridge the divisions in Christianity.

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