The Pope, the Patriarch — and a Little Bit of Putin

The meeting between the heads of the two churches in Cuba on Friday wasn’t just about religion. It was about politics.

Pope Francis, left, reaches to embrace the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, during a meeting in Havana on Feb. 12, 2016.
Pope Francis, left, reaches to embrace the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, during a meeting in Havana on Feb. 12, 2016. Gregorio Borgia/AFP/Getty Images

The Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions split almost one thousand years ago — before anyone in Cuba knew about Christianity, before anyone in Europe knew about Cuba, and before Russia, let alone a distinct Russian Orthodox Church, existed.

But on Friday afternoon, an unlikely scene unfolded at José Martí International Airport in Havana: Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill, respective heads of the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox Churches, embraced and kissed, and met for two hours before issuing a 30-point joint statement focused on Christianity’s future in Europe, the plight of Christians in the Middle East, and the two Churches’ divisive history in Ukraine.

Why Cuba? In part because the Caribbean island serves as neutral ground for the two churches, owing to both its strong Catholic ties and the tight bond it forged with Moscow during the Soviet era. But the country, which recently renewed relations with the United States, also serves as an example of the expanded role Pope Francis has assumed in matters of international diplomacy. (Francis played a crucial role in the Cuba-U.S. rapprochement, hosting secret talks between the two countries at the Vatican.) So it’s a fitting location for another rapprochement, one that has as much to do with geopolitics as it does with religious doctrine, and with two places in particular: the Middle East and Ukraine.

At the top of the list: Both Moscow and Rome have voiced their concerns over the plight of Christians living in Iraq and Syria. When the meeting between Francis and Kirill was announced, Metropolitan Illarion, the foreign policy chief of the Russian Orthodox Church (a post Kirill himself once held), told reporters that “the situation in the Middle East, in northern and central Africa, and in other regions where extremists are perpetrating a genocide of Christians, requires immediate action and an even closer cooperation between Christian churches.”

Whether Christians in the region are in fact facing genocide is a matter of dispute in policy circles, from Baghdad to Washington, but both the Catholic and Russian Orthodox Churches agree on the matter. According to Open Doors USA, a Christian advocacy organization, 7,100 Christians were killed in 2015 for “faith-related reasons,” disproportionately in the Middle East and North Africa — 3,000 more people than the previous year.

However, Moscow and Rome do not see eye to eye when it comes to policy in the region. The Russian Orthodox Church is vocal in its support for the Russian military campaign in Syria. “The fight with terrorism is a holy battle and today our country is perhaps the most active force in the world fighting it,” said Vsevolod Chaplin, a former spokesman for the church. The Vatican takes a different view. Pope Francis has called for a peaceful solution to the conflicts in Iraq and Syria. “The international community seems unable to find adequate solutions while the arms dealers continue to achieve their interests,” he said.

Although it’s not entirely clear how renewed ties between the churches would translate to an improved reality for Syrian Christians on the ground, the Catholic Church has voiced an interest in increased cooperation. But there are dangers to closer ties as well. In meeting with a church that has vocally supported Russia strategy in Syria, the Vatican may be inadvertently signaling its approval, Frank Synsyn, director at the Centre for Ukrainian Historical Research at the University of Alberta, told Foreign Policy. “I appreciate that the Pope is concerned about the Middle East, but the rest of his timing is very bad,” Synsyn said. “It definitely gives credibility to Putin’s moves in Syria.”

Moreover, the focus on the state of Christianity in the Middle East is a public relations win for the Russian Orthodox Church, which is trying to shore up its position in Russia by presenting itself as the defender of persecuted Christians around the world. “This meeting allows them to play a large public role and sell it back in Russia,” said John Burgess, a professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.

If Friday’s dialogue is intended to initiate new levels of cooperation in the Middle East, it’s also aimed at minimizing the effects of longstanding tensions between the two churches in Ukraine, an area where political and religious differences overlap.

The Russian Orthodox Church views Ukraine as an important Orthodox base: The country is home to nearly half of the Russian Orthodox Church’s monasteries and parishes, and is a crucial battleground for maintaining and growing Moscow’s relevance outside of Russia.

But that relationship has been complicated by the ongoing war in Ukraine: Kirill’s closeness to the Kremlin has damaged the Russian Orthodox Church’s standing in the country and left the Patriarch walking a tightrope between supporting Putin’s foreign policy and not appearing insensitive to the Ukrainian government and public’s concerns. In the aftermath of the Maidan revolution, a large number of Ukrainians who adhered to the Russian Orthodox Church changed allegiance to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kievan Patriarchate, which is not under the Russian Orthodox Church’s purview (nor under the Vatican’s; it is independent). This church played a role in supporting the protests that overthrew former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014 (and is not to be confused with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which looks to Moscow).

It’s against this backdrop that the bad blood between the Vatican and the Russian Orthodox Church over Ukraine’s 5 million Greek Catholics has taken on higher stakes. The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church was founded in 1596 when a group of Orthodox believers switched their allegiance to Rome. (Its members still practice the rites of Orthodox Christianity, such as crossing themselves right to left and taking Holy Communion directly into the mouth from a priest with a spoon, but see themselves as loyal to the Vatican.) The Orthodox Church accused the Catholic Church of stealing their believers – and, because the church buildings themselves also changed hands, their property — and hard feelings have lingered ever since.

Despite its small size, the Greek Catholic Church has played an outsized role in politics: During the Soviet Union, the church supported dissidents and later became a symbol of Ukrainian nationalism after independence, in 1991. During the protest in 2013 and 2014 against Yanukovych, the Greek Catholic Church supported protesters. But its political stance has sometime put it at odds with Rome’s political priorities.

“Greek Catholics in Ukraine were hoping for more support from the Vatican after the Maidan protests,” said Burgess. “Now there is fear that [the Vatican is] tilting towards Moscow.”

While there is zero chance of Friday’s meeting resolving the dispute over these Greek Catholics — Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, chairman of the Russian Orthodox Church’s department of external relations, at a press conference last week, called it a “never-healing bleeding wound that prevents the full normalization of relations between the two Churches” — it can still lay the groundwork for future dialogue about the status of church property.

Kirill hopes to use the meeting with Francis as a chance to assert the Russian Orthodox Church’s influence within Orthodox Christendom ahead of June’s Pan-Orthodox Council, the first meeting between the various Orthodox churches to take place in over 1,000 years. The Patriarchate of Constantinople is “first among equals” in Orthodoxy, but some two third of Orthodox Christians are Russian Orthodox.

Ukraine aside, the differences between Catholic and Orthodox Churches are mostly cultural, liturgical, and theological. But the reasons for Friday’s meeting were mostly political. A thousand years after they parted ways, pontiffs and patriarchs still have a role to play as political leaders on the world stage.

Photo credit: Gregorio Borgia/AFP/Getty Images

Reid Standish is an Alfa fellow and Foreign Policy’s special correspondent covering Russia and Eurasia. He was formerly an associate editor. Twitter: @reidstan

Benjamin Soloway is an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @bsoloway

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