The Vatican

What is the future of ecumenical diplomacy? 

The refusal of Patriarch Kirill not to attend the World Congress of Religious Leaders is an important sign of the delicate situation in which ecumenical diplomacy finds itself. In this article we analyze the most important variables to take into account at this moment.

Andrea Gagliarducci-September 10, 2022-Reading time: 5 minutes

Photo: Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill at their meeting in Havana in 2016. ©Photo by SNC/Paul Haring

For the time being there will be no second meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow. The Patriarch has abruptly withdrawn his presence from the World Meeting of Religious LeadersThe meeting, to be held in Nur Sultan (Kazakhstan) on September 14-15, will also be attended by Pope Francis. Ecumenical diplomacy is in a particularly delicate phase.

Patriarch Kirill had confirmed his participation some time ago, and it could be said that one of the reasons Pope Francis wanted to go to Kazakhstan was precisely because of the possibility of a second meeting with the Patriarch.

This second meeting had taken on incredible importance at a time when the conflict in Ukraine had broken out. The Moscow Patriarchate had not only supported Russian decisions, but had found itself hopelessly isolated in the midst of Orthodoxy. Even Metropolitan Onufry, who led the Kiev Orthodox flock linked to the Moscow Patriarchate, had effectively severed ties with his mother house. While from the Serbian Patriarchate, traditionally allied with Russia, aid came directly to Onufry, bypassing Moscow's mediation.

They were minor clashes in an Orthodox world that, with the Russian aggression in Ukraine, was beginning to change its attitude and even its line of force. Because on one side there is always Moscow, the largest Orthodox Church, the one linked to the most powerful state. But on the other side there are the other "autocephalies" (the Orthodox Churches are national), which in the face of Russian aggression have slightly changed their attitude. Encouraged, it is true, by the example of Ukraine, which already in 2018 had asked and obtained to become an autocephalous Church, detaching itself from the secular administration of Moscow granted to it by Constantinople in the 17th century. 

Ukrainian autocephaly has been on the verge of leading to an Orthodox schism, with Moscow on one side and the rest of the Orthodox world on the other, or simply watching. And it is perhaps to that autocephaly that one must look to really understand Moscow's fears, those of a Ukraine ever further away from its Russian brethren, ever closer to Europe. 

What will happen in Kazakhstan?

There will be no meeting with Patriarch Kirill, but that does not mean that Pope Francis' trip will have no significance or impact. The Pope will meet with other religious leaders, have personal conversations with each of them, trying to build bridges of dialogue.

In general, the protocol caused some perplexity. The Pope does not participate in meetings organized by other governments, but rather organizes the meeting or is the chief guest. Mere participation runs the risk of belittling him, and this is something the Holy See has always been wary of. 

Likewise, the World Meeting of Religious Leaders held in Nur Sultan is, to say the least, an extraordinary opportunity to establish accounts.

Since 2019, the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue has established a memorandum of understanding with the organization of the World Meeting of Religious Leaders, in the culmination of very good relations established since the Holy See attended the Expo in the country with its pavilion in 2017. 

Now, it will be Pope Francis who will exploit this mine of encounters, accompanied by Cardinal Miguel Angel Ayuso Guixot, president of the dicastery and now practically at home in Kazakhstan,

And who knows if the Pope will not take advantage of his presence in Nur Sultan to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping, who will be in Kazakhstan during the same days. It would be an extraordinary coup for the Kazakh president, but even more so for Russia, which would not hesitate to show the meeting as a sign of the Pope's openness also towards countries marginalized by the West. 

Chances of meeting Kirill

As has been said, Patriarch Kirill will not be present, but Metropolitan Antonij, the new head of the Moscow Patriarchate's Department of External Relations. 

Kirill's absence is explained in a very concrete way: the Patriarch of Moscow does not want the Pope to receive him "on the sidelines" of another event, but wants this meeting to have dignity, to produce a document, to represent a milestone. 

And the fact is that, faced with a possible isolation even in the Orthodox world, the Moscow Patriarchate needs to demonstrate that there is at least one leader, and among the most respected, who gives credence to its work. And this despite the fact that the Pope did not hesitate to call Kirill "Putin's altar boy" in the videoconference of last March 16 - Pope Francis himself admitted it in an interview - and despite the fact that Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity, defined as "heresy" certain Orthodox theological positions on Russkyi Mir, Greater Russia. 

What's new now?

The presence of the Pope, who did not meet with Kirill, represents for Kazakhstan not only an opportunity to celebrate 30 years of diplomatic relations with the Holy See, but also to strengthen a role in the interreligious dialogue it has been trying to develop since 2003, when the World Meeting of Religious Leaders was held for the first time.

At the end of the meeting a joint statement will be made, which - Kazakh officials explained - will be "distributed as an official UN document", and it will "reflect on the most topical problems of the world, global conflicts, geopolitical tensions, social problems, including the spread of moral and ethical values".

It should be noted that the theme of the conference was also pointed out by Kazakhstan to the UAE authorities, to the point that the Kazakh ambassador to Abu Dhabi held a press conference on the subject in recent days. And the final declaration will likely have two models: the Abu Dhabi Declaration on Human Fraternity signed by Pope Francis during his 2019 trip to the UAE together with the Grand Imam of al Azhar Ahmed al Tayyb; and the final declaration of the meeting between Pope Francis and Kirill in Havana in 2016.

This would take the best of the latest models of dialogue developed by Pope Francis, continuing in that wake along a path acceptable to the Holy See.

A trip to Moscow or Kiev?

There has been much talk of the trip to Kazakhstan as a consequence, or anticipation, of a trip by Pope Francis to Moscow or Kiev, or both. As things stand, neither a trip to Moscow nor to Kiev seems likely. Pope Francis has long maintained that it is for medical reasons, and that he would like to go at least to Kiev, where there is an urgent invitation, but that he cannot because his condition does not allow it.

This is true, but it is only a partial explanation. A trip to Kiev made after the trip to Kazakhstan and a possible meeting with Patriarch Kirill would probably have exacerbated Ukrainian tempers, already very upset by the war. Now, a trip to Kiev after the meeting in Kazakhstan would have more opportunities, but at the same time would be seen as secondary.

Moscow's situation is different, because that requires an invitation, and there has not yet been one. These are very difficult and delicate diplomatic situations, which are based on balances yet to be deciphered.

Certainly, the trip to Kazakhstan has no connection with the other two trips that the Pope could undertake. But it has an ideal link with the passage to Jerusalem that the pope would have wanted to make on June 14, after two days in the Lebanonwhere he would meet with Patriarch Kirill.

Everything was ready for the meeting, which was then postponed for "reasons of convenience", leaving the Moscow Patriarchate not a little puzzled. Perhaps this is also the practical reason why Kirill decided not to go to Nur Sultan.

European reconciliation can only be achieved through ecumenical dialogue. This is well known in Ukraine, where the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations, which has been bringing together the religious denominations of Ukraine for 25 years, is making specific appeals.

The Catholic Church can play an important role in this ecumenical reconciliation. But, to use the words of His Beatitude Sviatoslav Shevchuk, Major Archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, "we can reconcile with our brothers. We cannot reconcile with geopolitics".

The authorAndrea Gagliarducci

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