On February 12, in the VIP room of the Havana airport, Pope Francis of the Catholic Church and Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, who lead a collective 1.5 billion Christians worldwide, embraced as brothers. The historic reunion marked the end of the 1,000-year-old schism between the conflicting sects of Christianity. Long-standing linguistic and theological differences between the churches came to a head in the Schism of 1054, in which the Pope and the Patriarch excommunicated each other from their respective churches. While much of the coverage of the meeting has focused on its theological importance, this meeting also has important geopolitical implications considering Kirill’s close ties to the Russian government.
The meeting has been criticized as a public relations stunt meant to further Kirill’s power in his own Church. The Orthodox Church has no single figurehead, only regional leaders. Though Kirill is seen as one of the most powerful of these regional leaders — more than half of the world’s Orthodox Christians live in Russia — the increasing isolation of both the Russian Orthodox Church and Russia as a whole can be seen as a threat to his power. By meeting with the Pope and presuming to represent the church as a whole, Kirill is demonstrating Russia’s importance in Orthodox Christianity. “This isn’t benevolence. It’s not a newfound desire for Christian unity…It is almost entirely about [Kirill] posturing and trying to present himself as the leader of Orthodoxy,” said George Demacopoulos, the Greek-Orthodox chairman of Orthodox Christian studies at Fordham University in New York. But, the implications go beyond internal church politics, enduring deep into the political controversies surrounding Putin’s regime.
Throughout Kirill’s tenure as the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, he has grown close with Putin and the Kremlin as a whole. While Kirill has served as his spiritual advisor, Putin has overseen a revitalization of Orthodox Christianity, which suffered under the strict atheist politics of Communist rule. Putin has said that Russia’s “spiritual shield,” — its connection to the Orthodox Church — is just as important for the country’s protection as its “nuclear shield.”
Putin has used this Christian rhetoric in his justifications for his increasingly extreme international policies. In a speech describing the strategic importance of the Ukraine — which Russia annexed in 2014 — Putin noted that Crimea was the place where his own patron Saint was baptized. Putin has also justified his intervention in Syria as necessary to protect Syria’s Christian minority — a decision that some say was influenced by the Orthodox Church.
Given Kirill’s ties to the Russian government and Putin’s use of Orthodox Christianity to justify some of his more suspect political actions, the Pope has come under fire for the meeting. On the other hand, in the face of a millennium of religious conflict between the two Churches, one could argue that the Ukraine and Syrian cases are really minor political squabbles and that the Pope had larger goals in mind.
However, the Pope and Patriarch made the geopolitical intention of the meeting clear in a joint statement released after the fact. In it, they celebrate the growth of Orthodox Christianity in Russia, writing, “We give thanks to God for the current unprecedented renewal of the Christian faith in Russia.” Furthermore, they condemn the slaughter of Christians worldwide, a subtle boost to Putin’s justification for intervention in Syria. This aspect of the joint statement received the most attention following the meeting, but a closer look at the statement in its entirety reveals additionally troubling demands. One such section refers to the conflict in Ukraine directly, inviting Churches to “work towards social harmony, to refrain from taking part in the confrontation, and to not support any further development of the conflict.” In essence, the two leaders demand inaction on the part of the Churches, and refuse to condemn any Russian action.
Some Ukranian activists have read this part of the statement as a betrayal. His Beatitude Sviatoslav, head of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church, directly criticized this portion of the statement for its tacit approval of Russia’s involvement in Ukraine. Sviatoslav said, “The very word ‘conflict’ [in the statement] is obscure here and seems to suggests to the reader that we have a ‘civil conflict’ rather than external aggression by a neighboring state.” With regards to the invitation to his Church to “work towards social harmony,” Sviatoslav said, “Our priests have never taken up arms, as opposed to what has happened on the [Russian Orthodox] side. Our chaplains, as builders of peace, suffer the freezing cold together with our soldiers on the front and with their very own hands carry the wounded from the battlefield, wipe away the tears of mothers who mourn their dead children.”
The joint statement also addresses politics on a macro level, condemning the increased secularization of Europe. One part of the statement says: “Nonetheless, we invite vigilance against an integration [of Europe] that is devoid of respect for religious identities. While remaining open to the contribution of other religions to our civilization, it is our conviction that Europe must remain faithful to its Christian roots.” The statement implicitly speaks to the large number of Muslim people seeking refuge in Europe — a group that, according to both the Pope and Kirill, Europe must remain vigilant of. The statement does directly address the refugee crisis in a humanitarian manner, noting, “We cannot remain indifferent to the destinies of millions of migrants and refugees knocking on the doors of wealthy nations.” Yet, it’s hard to mediate this welcome with the underlying assumption that Christian identity is at the core of European nationhood.
These kinds of tensions — between supporting peace in the Ukraine and ignoring Russia’s role in the conflict, between maintaining Europe’s Christian identity and the welcoming Muslim refugees–litter the joint statement. On a fundamental level, both the statement and the meeting itself reflect Russian politics but also the changing nature of European politics. The Catholic and Orthodox churches have been divided on geographical lines — the Catholic Church is popular in the West, and the Orthodox in the East — to the point where the Schism of 1054 was called the “East-West Schism.” But this meeting demonstrates that, in the face of increasing secularization, this geographical divide has faltered, and the two Churches have become unlikely allies. Their statement reflects the fears of the Churches in the face of world secularization — fears that are distinctly political.