Putin has Mideast angle in improving Russian church’s relations with Vatican

It’s finally happened. For the first time since 1054, when a united Christian world split into two hostile parts – Catholicism and Orthodoxy – Pope Francis and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill will meet in Havana, Cuba, on Feb. 12.

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill and Vladimir Putin attend celebrations marking the 700th anniversary of St Sergius.

Even when the weighty historic and theological aspects are laid aside, the meeting is unprecedented if one considers that it will bring together the leaders of the world’s two largest Christian denominations. Given the long-standing obstacles, both sides had to travel a long way to make it happen. But in the end, the Russian side had to travel the longest distance.

The reason for Russia’s long journey to Havana is ingrained in history. The Roman Catholic Church has always been a powerful, independent organization that has always tried to transcend the notion of being a mere potentate or state.

The Russian church has been different. After the fall of the Byzantine Empire to the Turks in 1453, the medieval Russian state centered on Moscow proclaimed itself “the third Rome.” It was a bid to make itself a direct inheritor of Byzantium as a center of Orthodoxy. Since then, generation after generation of parishioners have been taught by the Russian church that they are the only “right” Christians, that they are “Chosen by the Lord.” Other Christians (with Catholics in the forefront) are buried in unforgivable sin.

Thus, the Russian Orthodox Church, for centuries, has been a drum for Russian nationalism and xenophobia.

It is also unlike the Vatican in another key respect. The Russian church has never been independent of the Russian state. It has always been part of the state apparatus supporting the Russian state in the “ideological” arena. It was so dependent on the state that Peter the Great liquidated the Patriarchate institution, replacing it by the “Most Saint Synod,” which in effect, created a government ministry of Orthodox affairs.

Centuries passed and nothing changed. In the years prior to the Russian Revolution and after, under the Soviets and under Putin, the Russia Orthodox Church continues to serve the interests of the Russian state. This is truer now than ever before.

After the communist regime’s collapse, the ruling elite that replaced it quickly sensed an ideological gap. There was nothing to replace communist ideology. Serious attempts were then undertaken to fill this vacuum with religion — first and foremost, with Russian Orthodoxy.

Kirill as Putin’s man

The attempts became especially noticeable after Vladimir Putin established himself in the Kremlin. Since then, one can see Patriarch Kirill in Putin’s close entourage at virtually every important state event.

Given that history, one thing about the upcoming meeting is clear: Patriarch Kirill is traveling to Havana not only as the leader of the Russian Church but also (and first and foremost) as a diplomat representing Russian interests.

The meeting between the Pope and Patriarch could have taken place much earlier. But it didn’t happen because the Russian church didn’t desire it. The chief objection on the Russian side was Catholic outreach activity in Russia.

As mentioned above,  the Russian Orthodox Church is very nationalistic and xenophobic. It has a paranoid fear of any proselyte activities on its territory and considers all of Mother Russia its exclusive territory. One of the long-standing preconditions for the meeting was a demand to stop Catholic outreach in Russia and restrict its existing efforts. It was a clear message from patriarchate: No meeting until this condition is met.

But times are changing. Despite the Kremlin’s declaration of new and important military victories in Syria, the true state of Russian diplomacy and society is far from nice and rosy. An economic crisis aggravated by western sanctions and the collapse of global oil prices has destroyed the Russian economy and is eroding living standards. This constitutes a threat to what Putin believes is his chief achievement during his 16 years in the Kremlin – stability.

Russian President Vladimir Putin leaves after a meeting with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill in 2014.

Russia also feels increasingly isolated on the diplomatic front due to its actions in Ukraine. Moscow’s involvement in Syria, which the Kremlin believed would break this isolation, failed to hit its goal. Russia now realizes it is stuck in Syria for the long term with no clear exit strategy.

Against this scenario, any fresh diplomatic measures are seen as good for the Kremlin. Hence, Patriarch Kirill is ready to see the Pope.

The topic of a 2-hour meeting in Havana will be the threatened “destruction of Christians” in the Mideast war zones, first of all in Syria and Iraq. This will be a very important topic for Kirill because he will be delivering a very important message from President Putin.

Russia: Defender of Syria’s Christians

Moscow wants to position itself now as the true and only defender of Syria’s Christian population. They also want to explain to the Pope that without a Russian military presence and without Russian support for the “legitimate” regime of Syrian president Bashar Assad, local Christians face imminent death from ISIS and other extremist Islamic groups.

Putin desperately needs the Vatican’s help. This is especially true now that the last round of negotiations with the Syrian opposition has utterly failed. He hopes to mobilize Vatican clout under the pretext of defending Christianity to wrangle new and more favorable terms from the opposition and to save at least some parts of the Assad regime. As part of this, Moscow would love to use Francis as a sort of lobbyist for its peace plans for Syria and its campaign to save Assad.

The Ukraine also comes into play. Besides the problem of Uniats (the part of western Ukrainian orthodox church who recognized Vatican supremacy in the 16th century) and who now occupy parishes belonged to the Russian Orthodox Church, there is the issue of a split. Part of the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine declared its independence from Moscow in 1991 and created  an unrecognized “Kiev Patriarchate.”

In light of recent events in Ukraine, Moscow and the Russian church are seriously worried that the Vatican would confer recognition on this patriarchate at some point in the future. It’s highly likely that Kirill will try to convince the Pope not to support the recognition of the Kiev patriarchate.

It is likely that Francis’ meeting with Kirill will also touch on the problems of western sanctions against Russia and Mideast refugees. But the bottom line is Moscow wants to establish a working relationship with the Vatican. This includes tapping the Vatican’s influence where there is mutual understanding on some matters.

Jim Davis is a political analyst and the president of South Shore Consultants Inc.

The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.

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