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Tatiana Zonova

Doctor of Political Science, Professor of the Diplomacy Department of the MGIMO University

A landmark meeting between Patriarch Kirill and Pope Francis took place at Jose Marti International Airport in Havana on February 12, 2016. A meeting of this kind has been unprecedented in the history of relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). Growing differences in doctrinal theology and policies led to the split in once united Christianity in the Great Schism of 1054 and to establishing its Eastern and Western branches. The Russian Orthodox Church became autocephalous and acquired her own patriarch in 1589. However, the primacy of the pope in the Catholic world has remained indisputable.

A landmark meeting between Patriarch Kirill and Pope Francis took place at Jose Marti International Airport in Havana on February 12, 2016. A meeting of this kind has been unprecedented in the history of relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). Growing differences in doctrinal theology and policies led to the split in once united Christianity in the Great Schism of 1054 and to establishing its Eastern and Western branches. The Russian Orthodox Church became autocephalous and acquired her own patriarch in 1589. However, the primacy of the pope in the Catholic world has remained indisputable.

The impetus to the dialogue between the Orthodox Churches and the Roman Catholic Church was given by decisions of the Second Vatican Council and the Pan-Orthodox Conferences and the dialogue started in the first half of the 60s, although the early meetings were not easy. The Russian Orthodox Church had repeatedly accused the Catholics of proselytism, i.e. of attempting to convert the ROC flock to the Catholic faith. So, Vatican’s support of the Greek-Catholic or the so-called “Uniate” Church that appeared in the 16th century following the accession to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth of the territories, whose population professed Orthodoxy, gave rise to controversies too. Members of the Uniate Church follow Byzantine Orthodox liturgical traditions, while placing themselves under the authority of the Bishop of Rome. In 1946, the Soviet Union took a decision to abolish the Uniate Church and to force its members to return to the ROC. The revival of the Uniate Church, which began at the turn of the 80s-90s, has been accompanied by clashes, often bloody, over the ownership of church buildings.

For decades, the theological problems have been discussed by a specifically established Joint Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches, which includes delegates from the Catholic side and representatives of all local Orthodox Churches, the Russian Orthodox Church among others. Throughout the second half of the 1990s, intensive negotiations were held on the arrangement of a meeting between Patriarch Alexy II and Pope John Paul II to be held in Austria, but the idea could not be realized because of the problems on which the agreement failed. However, the ecumenical dialogue between Orthodox and Catholic Christians continued. A special impetus to the dialogue was given by Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, when he was elected the Bishop of Rome and became Pope Francis. Patriarch Kirill, for his part, also expressed interest in dialogue with the Catholics. Former Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti recalled that back in 2012 the Russian Patriarch told him about his intention to attend the 1700th anniversary celebrations of Roman Emperor Constantine’s Edict of Milan and to have a talk with Pope Benedict XVI.

Pope Francis said that after two years of confidential talks he would be happy to embrace his Orthodox brothers.

In June 2015, The Corriere della Sera cited Metropolitan Hilarion, whom it called “the Foreign Minister” of the Moscow Patriarchate, as saying that “the historic meeting was a possibility.” In early 2016, Cardinal Kurt Koch, President of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, emphasized that “the traffic light changed from red to green.” On his part, Pope Francis said that after two years of confidential talks he would be happy to embrace his Orthodox brothers.

The Sacred Bishops’ Council of the Russian Orthodox Church, which completed its work on February 3, 2016 in Moscow, decided that a meeting should be urgently held between Patriarch Kirill and Pope Francis of Rome. It was also noted that, due to the situation as it has developed today in the Middle East, in North and Central Africa and in some other regions, in which extremists are perpetrating a real genocide of the Christian population in the Middle East, North and Central Africa and some other regions where extremists carried out a true genocide of the Christian population, the problem of the persecution against Christians will become central at this meeting. The World Russian People's Council expressed the hope that the meeting would have a positive affect on the situation in Ukraine.

Russian non-Christian communities also supported the meeting between the two heads of the Christian Churches. Talgat Safa Tajuddin, Grand mufti and Chairman of the Central Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Russia, expressed confidence that this meeting would have a positive impact on the fate of Christians around the world. “On behalf of the Muslims of our country, I warmly welcome the decision of the leaders of the two churches to negotiate, because any meeting is the path to understanding,” said Tajuddin. “Bless this meeting,” said Rabbi Zinoviy Rogan, the Vice-President of the Congress of Jewish Religious Communities and Organizations of Russia (KEROOR).

At a mass in Roman Basilica di San Paulo Fuori le Mura (St. Paul-Outside the Walls) Pope Francis warned representatives of various Christian confessions, who were present at the service, against “allowing the weight of our past sins to pollute our relationships today.” [1]

Pope Francis never tires of repeating that the main thing is to build bridges, step by step, in order to shake hands with those who come to meet. “Build bridges, not walls, the walls should be demolished.” In his speeches the pontiff has revealed problems, which open prospects for dialogue with the Russian Orthodox Church, namely countering terrorism, that propagates hatred and aggression from which the Christian communities suffer, especially in the Middle East. “They are our martyrs of today: they are expelled, they are deprived of life only because they are Christians,” said Pope Francis. Demanding self-criticism from the West for actions of their governments, Pope Francis regards military intervention in Iraq, North Africa and the results of the so-called Arab Spring as a “a gambling enterprise” that cost too much.

Pope Francis has emphasized that the warnings issued by the Holy See and Russia about the consequences of such actions are similar in many respects. In his opinion, numerous violent armed conflicts have, in fact, escalated into a third world war, which yields considerable profits to arms dealers. Moreover, certain political forces derive their benefits from this war as well. The problems of environmental protection are no less urgent too. Pope Francis constantly calls attention to the fact that achieving ecological balance is a major factor in ensuring global security. Comparing the situation in the international arena with the polyhedron, the Pope calls for a “strategy of bridges” that leads to the final disposal of the legacy of the Cold War and to creating a new world order.

1. In particular, the Pope will participate in a joint ceremony of the Roman Catholic Church and the World Lutheran Federation, dedicated to the celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, initiated by Luther

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