The forthcoming meeting of Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill, leader of the Russian Orthodox is a model for reconciliation. Pope Francis will be travelling to Mexico Feb. 12-18 and will make a brief stop in Cuba, meeting the Russian Orthodox leader at Havana airport where they will speak privately for about two hours and then sign a joint declaration.
It can be safely assumed that both sides have been discussing the issue for years but it appears this rushed meeting is just an answer to the violence that threatens to wipe out the presence of Christians – Catholics and Orthodox in the Middle East. But will it solve the hatred and animosity between the two churches that has raged for centuries? To put it in its proper perspective, we need to consider what acclaimed author, Orlando Figes wrote in his monumental book, “The Crimean War.” The conflict was long ridiculed as a serious subject. Yet it was a major turning point in the history of Western Europe, Russia and the Middle East, the consequences of which are still being felt today. Mainly ignored, most people know only of that historic charge of the Light Brigade and Florence Nightingale (The Lady with the lamp.) There has been little discussion of the war’s religious origins and the complex relations between the Christians and Muslims in the area of the Black Sea. That war left the Russians with a deep resentment of the West and a feeling of betrayal that Christian states such as Britain and France had sided with the Turks against Holy Russia.
Each power entered the Crimean War with its own motives. For the Turks it was a question of fighting for their crumbling empire in Europe, of defending their imperial sovereignty against Russia’s claim to represent the Orthodox Christians in the Ottoman Empire.
The British claimed they went to war to defend the Turks against Russia’s bullying. They were in fact more concerned to strike a blow against Russia whom they feared as a rival in the Near East and a threat to the British Indian Empire — the jewel in the British crown. The British actively promoted the idea that the policy of Russia was impregnated with the spirit of deadly hostility to England. Similar comments about Russia were a regular feature of editorials in the British press. So intense was this feeling that contemporaries referred to it as “Russophobia.”
For the Emperor of France, Napoleon III, the war was an opportunity to restore France to a position of respect and influence abroad – if not for the glory of France. The influence of the Catholic Church also pushed him to war against Russia on religious grounds. For the British and the French, this was a crusade for the defense of liberty and European civilization against the barbaric menace of Russia whom they considered not just a threat to the West, but to the whole of Christendom.
As for the Czar, Nicholas I, he was driven by inflated pride and arrogance of how a great power such as Russia should behave towards its weaker neighbors and a gross miscalculation of how the other powers would respond. Above all, he firmly believed he was fighting a holy war, a crusade to fulfill Russia’s mission to defend the Christians of the Ottoman Empire and was ready to extend his empire as far as Constantinople and Jerusalem.
As for the Vatican, few have devoted any study to the dispute in the Holy Land – the rivalry between the Catholics or Latins ( backed by France) and the Greeks (supported by Russia) as to whom should have control of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. All the powers used religion as a leverage. Politics and faith were closely intertwined in that imperial rivalry and every nation, none more so that Holy Mother Russia went to war in the fervent belief that God was on their side.
Mr. Figes tells us that in 1846, Easter fell on the same date in the Latin and Greek Orthodox calendars. The two religious had been been arguing as to who should have the first right to carry out the Good Friday rituals on the altar of Calvary inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the spot where the cross of Jesus was supposed to have been inserted in the rock. On that Good Friday, the Latin priests had arrived with their white linen altar cloth only to find the Greeks were there first with their silk embroidered cloth. The Catholics demanded to see the decree from the Sultan of Constantinople, empowering them to place their silk cloth on the altar first. The Greeks demanded to see the Latin’s decree. allowing them to remove it. A fight broke out between the priests who were joined by monks and pilgrims. Soon the whole church was a battlefield. The rival group of worshipers fought not only with their fists, but with crucifixes, candlesticks, chalices, lamps and incense burners. The fight continued with knives and pistols. By the time the church was cleared, more than forty people lay dead on the floor.
As strange as it seems, on Good Friday, a few years ago, the Latin and Greek priests came to blows over the same issue. Insults were hurled and punches thrown.
For Russia, the holy shrines of Palestine were objects of intense and passionate devotion and they saw the Holy Lands as an extension of their spiritual motherland. The idea of “Holy Russia” was not contained by territorial boundaries. It was an empire of the Orthodox with the Holy Sepulchre as its Mother Church. It was Russia’s divine mission to liberate the Orthodox from the Islamic empire of the Ottomans and to restore Constantinople as the seat of Eastern Christianity.
The eagerness of Pope Francis to meet the leader of the Russian Orthodox clearly points to the fact that Pope Francis is aware that Putin has an axe to grind. It stems from the policy of Pope Pius XII, driven by two fundamental objectives: the destruction of Communism and the expansion of the Catholic Church. Pope Pius XII had dedicated his whole life to the pursuance of both, that during the Spanish Civil War when it seemed Spain and the Catholic Church were in great danger of being overrun by Communism, Nazi war planes bombed Spanish cities killing thousands of civilians. Backed by Fascists boots on the ground, the Church was saved by the Nazis and the Fascists, ushering in a brutal and revengeful Fascist dictatorship under Franco. But Communism was still a threat and those same forces – the Nazis and the Fascists decided to finish the job when they launched the invasion of Russia on June 22nd. 1941 that resulted in the loss of more than 25 million Russians.
With the fall of Communism, there was an understanding that the West would not encroach upon Russia. But with NATO and the E.U. the West had advanced right to the doorstep of Russia. But all that changed when a Western backed Fascist coup violently overthrew the duly elected, Russian-leaning president of Ukraine that caught the West flat-footed when Putin annexed Crimea and occupied Eastern Ukraine.
The flare-up of hostilities in the Middle East and the refugee crisis has given Putin an opportunity to get involved in that conflict. He is there and the West hasn’t a clue on how to deal with him. But Pope Francis does. He understands perfectly well the underlying religious issues between Russia and the Catholic Church that has simmered over the centuries. Pope Francis would do well to acknowledge the fact that the Catholic Church had embarked on a divine mission to wipe out the godless communists from the face of the earth – be it in North Korea, Vietnam, the Middle East, Africa or South America.
In a surprising and startling reversal of things, it turns out that the Russians are not the godless communists, but the godly Catholic Church that is awash with greed, corruption, immorality and filth. Whatever documents Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill sign, it will not make a difference because it is up to Putin to respond. Let us not forget that the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church is a strong supporter of Putin.
It has been far too long since the fall of the Berlin Wall that Russia has been treated as a second-class citizen and an international pariah. With the decline of the military forces of Western Europe, it is inconceivable that America could go it alone. So the shoe is now on the other foot. Everything depends on Pope Francis to defuse the explosive, religious conflict in the Middle East. The meeting of two heads of the most powerful Christian Churches is a journey to be undertaken. It is step in the right direction and a hope for the future as Pope Francis is aware that Armageddon, the place where the final battle will take place is not far away.