MOSCOW (AP) — When Patriarch Kirill meets Pope Francis this week, the historic event will allow the head of the Russian Orthodox Church to assert Russia’s leading role in the Eastern Christian world. It may also allow Kirill, a skillful political player with close ties to President Vladimir Putin, to open a new avenue of communication for the Kremlin as it tries to escape Western isolation.
Francis and Kirill — two clerics who could not be more different in style — took everyone by surprise when both churches announced last Friday that they would meet at the Havana airport in Cuba on Friday in a historic step to heal the 1,000-year schism that split Christianity.
By agreeing to the meeting with the head of the Catholic Church, the Russian Church swept under the rug the grudges it harbored against the Vatican for aggressive proselytizing in the 1990s in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, countries that the Orthodox Church considers its turf.
Putting church disputes aside, now may be an opportune time for Moscow to have a high-profile meeting with a leading Western figure who has not been as scathing of Russian foreign policy as others.
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“Putin needs the meeting between the patriarch and the pope now more than ever,” Alexander Baunov of the Carnegie Moscow Center wrote in a recent commentary. “The political West is overtly hostile to Russia and to him personally, which makes it all the more important to demonstrate that the religious West is less hostile to them.”
Kirill’s spokesman, Father Alexander Volkov, insisted on Tuesday that the patriarch will not be carrying a message from Putin but will be “conveying the aspirations” of his flock. Putin has met Francis twice since he was elected pope in 2013.
As a priest and bishop in Argentina, Francis was known for his simple ways: He did his own cooking, went around Buenos Aires on public transport and turned down the offer to move into the grand archbishops’ residence when he was promoted. As pope, he hasn’t changed a bit: He famously paid his own hotel bill when he checked out of the priests’ residence after being elected pope, drives around the Vatican in a Ford Focus and to this day the 79-year-old cooks his own food in the microwave at the Vatican’s cafeteria-style dining room.
Unlike most Russian priests, Kirill, 69, never had a non-church job even in Soviet times, but moved through the ranks of the church bureaucracy after taking the cloth in 1969. Like any high-ranking Russian official, Kirill rides in a motorcade and has expensive tastes. Although he often speaks of the bane of consumerism, the patriarch has been caught wearing a $30,000 watch, while his top clerics have defended their expensive lifestyle as something that should reflect the “prestige of the church.”
Unlike Francis, Kirill never particularly dwells on the problems of the poor, speaking rather about spirituality and the need for Russians to think about the salvation of the soul.
When elected in 2009, Kirill was perceived as a reformer and a Westerner. But contrary to expectations of reform within the church, he embarked on forging an intimately close relationship with the Kremlin.
When Putin was running for his third term as president in February 2012 and facing mass protests in Moscow, Kirill endorsed him by describing his previous 12 years in office as a “miracle of God” that had helped Russia “to exit this horrible systemic crisis.”
Later than month, four women from the Pussy Riot punk collective performed inside Moscow’s main cathedral to protest the increasingly intimate relationship between the Kremlin and the church. Three of the women were arrested on charges of hooliganism
During their trial, Kirill lashed out at Christians who called for leniency, saying they were seeking to “justify and downplay this sacrilege.” The women were found guilty and sentenced to two years in prison.
In foreign affairs, however, Kirill has not always toed the Kremlin line.
When Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and threw its support behind separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine, Kirill avoided expressing support for either side. In Ukraine, where both the Russian and the Ukrainian Orthodox churches operate, many have grown suspicious of the Moscow-controlled churches, but Kirill has been careful not to alienate the millions of pro-Western parishioners of the Russian Church, who include Kremlin foe President Petro Poroshenko.
At home, Kirill has been a subject of scandal, which has cast a shadow on a church that many Russians had hoped would be immune from the corruption that has permeated practically all of society.
A Moscow businessman in March 2012 was slapped with a half-million-dollar lawsuit by the patriarch’s cousin, who was living in Kirill’s apartment. The cousin claimed that a renovation of the businessman’s apartment upstairs and the “nano-dust” it caused had done irreparable damage to Kirill’s furniture and books.
The giant apartment, situated across the river from the Kremlin, raised eyebrows. The patriarch decried the media frenzy around the case, but never addressed the visibly non-monastic lifestyle the apartment represented.
A month later, bloggers spotted Kirill wearing a $30,000 watch on a visit to Ukraine. Shortly afterward, Kirill was photographed at a meeting with a Russian minister with nothing on his wrist, but a reflection of an expensive Swiss watch could be seen on the glossy table where he rested his hands. The church later apologized for manipulating the photograph, and Kirill argued that it was a gift and that he was not aware of its value.
While Kirill heads the largest Orthodox Church in the world, he is by no means the leader of the Orthodox world, which spans from Greece to Syria. The patriarch’s meeting with the pope could be seen as Kirill’s and Russia’s attempt to assert themselves in the Orthodox arena ahead of a congress of Orthodox leaders in June. Constantinople Patriarch Bartholomew is often described as first among equals in the Orthodox world.
Konstantin von Eggert, a Russian journalist and church watcher, said the patriarch has long felt that the Russian church should take the lead. “He really wants to be seen as a global figure that really knows what he’s doing,” Eggert said.
Kirill’s meeting with the pope may be unpopular with conservative believers in Russia, Eggert said, but “this is the risk he has to take in order to get global, in order to rise up unofficially to the level of the Constantinople patriarch and to prove to the Kremlin that on the one hand he is useful in presenting a different image of Russia externally but also reminding the Kremlin that he has independent contacts.”
Church spokesman Vladimir Legoida has denied suggestions that the meeting is timed for Russia to arrive at the all-Orthodox congress with a bolstered position.
The meeting also comes at a time when the Russian government finds itself under pressure from Western sanctions and at odds with the West over Syria and Ukraine.
Although Russian clerics deny any political implications, observers inside Russia see Friday’s meeting as potentially opening a new avenue for Kremlin communication with the West.
“It creates an important channel for all sorts of discussions and informal diplomacy,” journalist Sergei Parkhomenko said on Ekho Moskvy radio last week. “And I don’t doubt that in an hour of need, which Putin has brought about, Russia will make good use of it.”
Nicole Winfield in Rome and Martin Benedyk in London contributed to this report.