On 11 February this year, an historic meeting was held between two spiritual leaders in Christianity; one was the Roman Catholic Pope, who leads a billion Christians worldwide and the other was the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, spiritual leader to over two-thirds of Orthodox Christianity. It was the first meeting they have held in 1000 years.

Pope & Russian Patriarch

CNS photo | Paul Haring

In the year 1027 the Great Schism occurred (also called the East-West Schism) which had been building for some time around several issues, of which the most prominent were: the source of the Holy Spirit (‘Filioque’), whether leavened or unleavened bread should be used in the eucharist, the Bishop of Rome’s claim to universal jurisdiction and the place of the See of Constantinople in rela­tion to the pentarchy. Prior to the adoption of the doctrine of papal supremacy in the west in about the 11th century, Christendom was administered by the pentarchy, that is the ve major episcopal Sees of the Roman Empire: Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. Between the 11th and the 16th centuries, a number of patriarchal positions were created, or lost to other empires, and during this time the Moscow Patriarchate (or ‘The Patriarch of Moscow and all Rus’), initially based in Kiev but later moved to Moscow, rose to significance. To this day, all other current orthodox patriarchates do not consider the Pope as the su­preme leader of Christianity.

The Russian Patriarch, Kirill, was elected in February 2009. Prior to becoming patriarch he served as chair of the Russian Orthodox Church’s Department for External Church Relations and in that capacity was effectively its top ecumenical official. According to sources, however, it was the “extreme willingness” of the Pope to visit the Russian patriarch “whenever and wherever he wanted” that opened the door to this meeting in the presidential lounge of the international airport in Havana, the Cuban capital.

Speaking through an interpreter, the patriarch told the Pope: “Now things are easier.” They then sat down for a chat with aides on either side. Church officials have insisted that Patriarch Kirill’s historic meeting with Pope Francis was apolitical and meant to address the persecution of Christians in the Middle East; however, many have pointed to the fact that there was no joint prayer session as an indication that the talks were purely political and ecumenical.

“The Russian Orthodox Church has historically had close ties to the state and Patriarch Kirill and President Putin have an especially close relationship, with the patriarch calling Putin a ‘miracle from God’ and backing him in the 2012 election.” According to analyst, Alexei Makarkin, the only reason the patriarch agreed to the meeting was because Putin wanted him to. “The main topic of the discussion – persecution of Christians in the Middle East – plays to the Russian president’s advantage,” he said. “Russia is now being criticised by the west and the Arab world for its position on Syria and so any societal forces that won’t condemn Russia are useful to it,” Makarkin said. The Pope is “not an ally of Russia, but his argument for the protection of Christians can be used by Russia to justify its campaign in Syria,” he added. With the patriarch-pope meeting, the Russian Orthodox Church was both backing up Kremlin policy and “stressing that it plays an important role among Christian churches” ahead of an historic gathering of orthodox churches in Crete in June, ac­cording to scholar and political analyst, Masha Lipman.

The declaration these two men made is also in­teresting as it called for ‘action’ in the Middle East in defence of Christianity. It should be noted that these two men and Putin enjoy a similar outlook, as “accord­ing to Pope Francis, Putin is ‘the only one with whom the Catholic Church can unite to defend Christians in the East’. ‘It’s important to join efforts [with Russia] to save Christianity in all regions [of the world] where it’s oppressed,’Pope Francis said,” as cited by Le Journal Du Dimanche. Amazingly, Russia was identified by the Pope and the patriarch in their joint declaration, as a model country, undergoing a religious revival and it’s fair to say their leader is seen as the champion of Christianity, almost like a modern Justinian, a ‘defender of the faith’. Not since the time of the Czars has a Russian leader interested himself so much in the church and tried to fuse together church and state.

Russia is destined to become the ruler of Istanbul promoting “priestcraft” in his role as “the king of fierce countenance” (Dan 8:25). At this time he will unite the Latin west with the Greek east and through his “brasen claws” will rule over both. This meeting of Orthodox and Catholic churches is the first step in achieving this ambitious goal.


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