Pope and Russian Orthodox Head issue global appeal for protection of Middle East Christians
Nearly 1,000 years after the split between Eastern and Western branches of Christianity in 1054, Pope Francis met Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill last Friday at an airport terminal in Cuba. This historic meeting was the first ever between a Roman Catholic pope and a Russian Orthodox patriarch and took place only a week after it was announced. Cuban President Raul Castro seized the opportunity to organise a meeting when Kirill was visting Cuba and Francis was able to arrange a last minute stop-over in Havana on his way from Rome to a long-scheduled visit to Mexico.
“Finally, we are brothers” said Pope Francis as they entered through doors on opposite sides of the meeting room at Havana airport. He added “It is very clear that this is the will of God,” as the two religious leaders embraced each other and kissed on both cheeks.
After the meeting Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill issued a joint global appeal for the protection of Christians under attack in apparent reference to violence by militant groups such as Islamic State:
“In many countries of the Middle East and North Africa whole families, villages and cities of our brothers and sisters in Christ are being completely exterminated.”
“Their churches are being barbarously ravaged and looted, their sacred objects profaned, their monuments destroyed.”
The two religious leaders also lamented the “massive exodus of Christians” and called for large-scale humanitarian aid for refugees fleeing Syria and Iraq,
The joint declaration also urged Europe to remain faithful to its Christian roots and restated several traditional Christian teachings such as opposition to abortion and that marriage was reserved for the union of a man and a woman.
The Russian Orthodox Church is known to take a strong stand on these issues in public. Pope Francis likewise strongly supports these teachings though he has spoken on other issues as well including poverty and protecting the environment, which were also mentioned in the declaration.
What will change as a result of the meeting between the Pope and Patriarch?
The meeting is a culmination of a process that has been ongoing for several decades. There have already been many occasions in the past when both Catholic and Orthodox churches have spoken with one voice, for example in September 2013 when Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill spoke out in support of peace in Syria. At the time, Patriarch Kirill wrote to President Obama, Pope Francis and President Putin. It is to be expected that the cooperation between the two Churches will become deeper and more intense following the meeting.
This meeting is of course an incentive and a confirmation to continue with the dialogue and find new forms of cooperation, resulting in new projects and joint campaigns. There are possibilities for joint action in other Important spheres. In addition to standing up together against the persecution of Christians, there could be joint initiatives in support of the Christian family.
The leaders of both Churches have demonstrated a strong willingness to search for solutions together and to bear witness together. In the current political and socio-economic climate, the Churches can only make themselves heard by raising their voices together as they issue a call for peace.