Based on the common heritage which the Christian Church shared during the first millennium, a historic meeting took place between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill in Cuba (February 12th). After almost 1000 years following the schism of the Church, the first meeting ended with a far-sighted declaration.
The two church leaders emphasized that both churches want to respond to the challenges of the contemporary world. “Human civilization has entered into a period of epochal change. Our Christian conscience and our pastoral responsibility compel us not to remain passive in the face of challenges requiring our shared response” (7), they wrote in their visionary declaration.
And again: “Our gaze must firstly turn to those regions of the world where Christians are victims of persecution in many countries in the Middle East and North Africa, being completely exterminated. The churches are being barbarously ravaged and looted, their sacred objects profaned, their monuments destroyed. It is with pain that we call to mind the situation in Syria, Iraq and other countries of the Middle East, and the massive exodus of Christians from the land in which our faith was first disseminated and in which they have lived since the time of the Apostles, together with other religious communities (8)”.
They called upon the “international community to act urgently in order to prevent the further expulsion of Christians from the Middle East. In raising our voice in defence or persecuted Christians, we wish to express our compassion for the suffering experiences by the faithful of other religious traditions who have also become victims of civil war, chaos and terrorist violence.” (9) Given that thousands of victims in Syria and Iraq have been claimed in the violence in Syria and Iraq which has left many other millions without a home or means and sustenance, the two church leaders launch the urgent appeal: “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. Large-scale humanitarian aid must be assured to the afflicted populations and to the many refugees seeking safety in neighbouring lands.” (10)
Not to be indifferent to poverty and refugees
Both church leaders passionately launch their fervent appeal to the politically responsible as well as all peoples on the globe, urging them that the situation in the Mideast shall not deteriorate into a new war. They call on “all the parts that may be involved in the conflicts to demonstrate good will and to take part in the negotiating table. At the same time the international community must undertake every possible effort to end terrorism through common and joint action. (11) Interreligious dialogue is indispensable in our turbulent times and in our context, religious leaders have the particular responsibility to educate their faithful in a spirit which is respectful of the convictions of those belonging to other religious traditions.”(13)
The declaration emphasizes strongly that Europe must not forget its “Christian roots” (16) and that East and West must be united on the basis of 2000 years of Christian tradition. The two church leaders also address the common challenges: the fight against poverty and urge not to be indifferent against “the destinies of millions of migrants and refuges knocking on the doors of the wealthy nations.” They reaffirm the role and value of the family, as the “natural centre of human life and society…. We are concerned about the crisis in the family in many countries. Orthodox and Catholics share the same conception of the family, and are called to witness that it is a path of holiness, testifying to the faithfulness of the spouses in their natural interaction, to their openness to the procreation and rearing of their children, to solidarity between the generations and to respect for the weakest.”(19) “Marriage is a school of love and faithfulness. We regret that other forms of cohabitation have been placed on the same level as this union, while the concept, consecrated in the biblical tradition, of paternity and maternity as the distinct vocation of man and woman in marriage is being banished from the public conscience.” (20) They strongly emphasize the need to defend “the inalienable right to life where Millions are denied the very right to be born into the world.… The emergence of so- called euthanasia leads elderly people and the disabled to feel that they are a burden on their families and on society in general. (21)
Call for Unity among Orthodox in Ukraine
While the two church leaders make a passionate appeal for peace in the Mideast they also direct their attention to the Situation in Ukraine and the civil war, which is raging there. The only way to restore peace is a peaceful dialogue. In the context of their call for a peaceful dialogue among the Orthodox churches and the Greek Catholic, they “deeply deplore the hostility in Ukraine that has caused already many victims, inflicted innumerable wounds on peaceful inhabitants and thrown society into a deep economic and humanitarian crisis. We invite all the parts involved in the conflict to prudence, to social solidarity and to action aimed at constructing peace. We invite our Churches in Ukraine to work towards social harmony, to refrain from taking part in the confrontation and to not support any further development of the conflict.”(26) They express the hope that “all the Orthodox Christians of the Ukraine may live in peace and harmony, and that the Catholic communities in the country may contribute to this, in such a way that our Christian brotherhood may become increasingly evident.”(27)
Russia expert comments significance of Cuba as place of historic encounter
In an interesting interview given to the catholic aid organization “Church in need” (February 8th 2016), the expert on Russia, Peter Humeniuk qualified the long desired meeting between the two heads of state as a sensation and reason for great joy, a meeting that finally “fulfilled the dream by Pope John II”, who had taken the first substantial initiatives in order to deepen the dialogue between the Eastern and Western Church. For Humeniuk the timing of the meeting had to do with the dramatic deterioration of the world situation, in particular the experience of persecution against Christians, taking place in the Mideast, in North and Central Africa and other regions in which in the words of Metropolitan Hilarion, “extremists commit true genocide against the Christian population.”
Cuba had been chosen as a neutral place for the historic meeting, since Europe is cathexized by too many “historical reminiscences.” It is a place of world historical political events, Humeniuk said: “I think about the Cuban crisis in 1962, when the world was confronted with the outbreak of a war between the US and the S.U. At that time it was thanks to the peace appeal launched by Pope John XXIII which prevented an escalation. The actual conflicts in the world have developed in such a way that they threaten large parts of humanity and demand a common Cry of the Christian churches for peace.”
According to the Russia expert the meeting between Pope Francis and the Russian Orthodox Patriarch was the culmination of developments that had been going on for many years and in the course of which both churches had increasingly begun to talk with “one voice.” One key example was when in September 2013, at a moment when war in Syria was imminent , Russian- Orthodox Patriarch Kirill wrote a personal letter to President Obama while Pope Francis wrote a personal letter to Russian president Putin urging them to do everything possible to stop the war. It is to be expected that the cooperation between the two churches will intensify after the meeting.
An interesting role for the fostering of dialogue between the two churches was played by the catholic aid organisation “Church in need” (see review of the book in Resenha March 2015). Upon the initiative of Pope John Paul II (1991) the founder of the “Church in need”, Father Werenfried van Straaten, had been asked by him to assist the Russian Orthodox Church with active charity and dialogue. Thanks to this organisation, both churches began to cooperate in the following decades in a close and confidential way. In 2008 Patriarch Kirill gave P. Humeniuk a medal of honour for his work, saying at that occasion that the Catholic aid organization was also in difficult times often the only tie that connected our churches.
Key examples for the cooperation between the two churches were aside many charity projects and cooperation in the social fields and in the priest education, ecumenical media projects in Russia: “We support the News agency Blagovest Info and the film production Bagovest Media”. In the year 2008 a documentary film got produced by “Church in need” in cooperation with these Russian media chains about Pope Benedict XIV which was aired on the Russian State TV. Its highlight was an address given by Pope Benedict to the Russian people, part of which was spoken in Russian language by him. The film was shown at the occasion of the 81rst birthday of Pope Benedict XVI and as Humeniuk underlined, it was produced because many Russians had the desire for more knowledge and objective information about the Pope and the Catholic Church. He mentioned that at this moment the organisation is producing a similar film about Pope Francis.
There is a lot of reason to be optimistic, according to Humeniuk: Christianity in East and West looks back to a millennium in which they were not separated; they have common Saints and they both share the experience periods of terrible persecution against Christians, which was particularly virulent during soviet times. Today both churches are confronted with common challenges: the desire to bring about peace in the Mideast and Ukraine; terrorism; the destruction of the family and the deterioration of universal values such as the need to protect the dignity of man; the acceptance of abortion, euthanasia, genetic manipulation as well as the attempt to push Christianity out of public life in Europe.