By Isabelle Sagraves
On February 12th, 2016, the world watched as a historic meeting took place between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church. The two leaders held discussions in Cuba in order to discuss the persecution of Christians, especially in the Middle East and Africa, by the Islamic State and its affiliates. The first meeting between a Russian Patriarch and a Pope, this was a highly controversial and much-anticipated discussion, one that the Papacy has been attempting to instigate for many years now. The Russian Orthodox Church is the largest branch of Orthodox Christianity, which broke with the Catholic Church during the East-West Schism of 1054; a schism based on theology and the primacy of the pope. Since then, there has been a great deal of tension between the two Churches, and especially in the 20th Century, specifically between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church due to the events of the Cold War and subsequent world politics. Yet this historic meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill marks an important transition in their policy, from one of competition to cooperation. Although hopefully their aim of defending Christianity from the Islamic State and other terrorist groups will be successful, the tensions between Russia and the West may prove difficult in maintaining this alliance.
There is little doubt that the persecution of Christians is a significant problem that should be addressed by the Pope and the Patriarch. A new report by Open Doors USA, a Christian nonprofit organization, to TRUNEWS found that last year was the most violent for Christians in modern history: more that 7100 Christians were killed in 2015 for ‘faith-related reasons’, which marks a 40% increase from the previous year. The report found that the most dangerous countries for Christians are North Korea, Iraq, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Syria, and Pakistan. In the face of the Islamic State and of other oppressive regimes, Christians (as well as many other groups – Christians are not the only ones being persecuted) are indeed suffering. A Pope-Patriarch coalition to work towards alleviating this seems like a good step forward in creating a cooperative, unified force. This cause was the primary outcome of the meeting: “Thousands of victims have already been claimed in the violence in Syria and Iraq, which has left many other millions without a home or means of sustenance,” the Pope and patriarch said in a joint declaration. “We urge the international community to seek an end to the violence and terrorism and, at the same time, to contribute through dialogue to a swift return to civil peace.”
Although this cooperation seems like a mutually beneficial one, it is complicated by the legacy of the Cold War and its lingering effects on Russian/Western relations, most importantly the current situation under Putin. Kirill is close to Putin, and it has been suggested that this meeting will be used as propaganda to boost Russia’s public image despite general Western criticism of Putin’s regime. Yury Avvakumov, an assistant professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame, commented that “At this moment, it would be useful for Russian leaders to have any public figure who would approach Russia with a ‘business as usual’ attitude.” Essentially, Professor Avvukamov is suggesting that the Pope’s visit with the Patriarch may be interpreted as Western approval of the Russian government and its actions that are not necessarily supported by the Papacy.
On the other hand, Patriarch Kirill has experienced backlash from more conservative voices – because of this alliance, he has been accused of cooperating too much with the West. Chad Pecknold, a theologian at the Catholic University of America, stated that “Conservative forces within Moscow have said we don’t like this reunification with the west … (it) weakens us.” This statement comes amid a fraught past of conflict between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, most particularly over the Ukranian Greek Catholic Church, which practices Orthodox rites but answers to the Pope. The two churches have disagreed over who should have more influence over this sect, and this debate is still not settled. Aside from this specific conflict, the meeting between Patriarch Kirill and Pope Francis has sparked general attacks from Russian conservatives afraid of Russia’s Westernization.
It is impossible to separate the political and historical conditions surrounding Russia and the Russian Orthodox Church’s relationship with the West and the Papacy, even when the cause worth cooperating for seems clearly beneficial for all involved. Even the choice of meeting place, Cuba, has political undertones: an ex-Soviet country with a past of Western European colonization, Cuba has ties to both the Patriarch and the Pope. This further demonstrates how deeply political conflict resounds throughout this alliance, and how the conflict truly has the potential to strain it. This could be especially problematic when discussions begin about how exactly to proceed with their cause, because in order to stop the violent persecution of Christians, political support will probably be necessary in order to be successful.