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The Pope, the Patriarch, and the President

photo Putin and Patriarch Kirill

by Gordon M. Hahn

On February 12th Pope of the Roman Catholic Church Francis and Patriarch of Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) Kirill met in Havana, Cuba. Ostensibly, the meeting was intended as a first step towards overcoming the distance if not the institutional division created by the centuries-long schism. To be sure, this was one goal of the meeting, but negotiations had been ongoing for years and both the Catholic and Eastern Churches have experienced other schisms that might be more easily patched up than this rather ancient and severe one. But there was another global leader present at the meeting as can been seen by reading between the lines of the simple fact of the meeting’s occurrence and the joint declaration the Pope and the Patriarch issued after their meeting.

The text of the declaration is decidedly political and social ( Although it refers to the “nearly one thousand years” Catholics and Orthodox “have been divided by wounds” caused “by differences inherited from our ancestors” regarding “the understanding and expression of our faith in God,” it also notes that the schism was caused “by old and recent conflicts.” The declaration also expresses hope the meeting “may contribute to the re–establishment of…unity willed by God, for which Christ prayed, but addresses no theological issue and therefore cannot address important roots of the original schism. It is logical, therefore, to look at the numerous political and social issues for the ultimate reason for the willingness of the ‘two’ parties to meet at this particular time; and this is where Putin comes in and his hand can be seen.

The first point that needs to be made in this regard is that while the Catholic Church and Pope Francis are fully independent actors, the ROC and Patriarch Kirill are not. There is what Russia’s call a ‘synergy’ between the Russian state and the ROC. In other words, the ROC possesses a certain degree of autonomy—and far more than it ever had under Soviet rule—it still works closely with the Russian state and leadership on certain key issues and sometimes makes common cause on issues of both domestic and international politics. This means that Patriarch Kirill could not have met with Pope Francis without the approval of Russian President Validimir Putin. It is possible, though unlikely, that Putin could prefer that such a meeting not take place but agree to it anyaway so as not to undermine his relationship with the ROC which is not an unimportant source of legitimacy for hem and his regime. However, it is more likely that Putin wholeheartedly approved and was the initiator of the idea. The ROC would also be unlikely to refuse President Putin’s proposal, if it was set against such a meeting, but we know that was not the case, since negotiations on such a meeting have been proceeding for years under previous Popes and patriarchs. So the most likely explanation for the Russian side’s decision to agree to the meeting is that both President Putin and Patriarch Kirill saw benefits for themselves, their respective institutions, and perhaps for both state and Church.

Moreover, the Pope and the Patriarch met for only a few hours, and it is highly unlikely, even absurd to think that their joint declaration was drafted during the meeting. That means that at least a late draft was in the works while the Patriarch was still in Moscow. Indeed, it is again highly unlikely and even absurd to think that Putin did not play some role in drafting or approving the aspects of the draft contributed to the joint declaration by the ROC side.

Although the social issues addressed in the declaration also have implications for and from President Putin’s domestic and foreign politics, the more explicitly political issues appear to have been the main motivation—at least for Putin—for the meeting. Afterall, if nothing else, Putin is a political animal—indeed, one of the most political of all.

The political reasons behind Putin’s support for such a meeting can be found in the political aspects of the joint declaration. Most obviously Pope Francis—and less clearly but most likely the ROC—must have concurred with these political considerations, given their appearance in the declaration.

So what were the politics addressed in the declaration? The Churches expressed “a particular sense of urgency” and “the need for the shared labour of Catholics and Orthodox,” the declaration noted. This suggests that current events played a major role in the decision to meet now.

The declaration then addressed several clearly political issues of importance in the contemporary world. First and not surprisingly, the Pope and the Patriarch highlighted correctly that Christians are “victims of persecution” in “many countries of the Middle East and North Africa” and called upon a badly divided if not non-existent “international community” to “act urgently in order to prevent the further expulsion” and “mass exodus” of Christians from the Middle East, “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.”

This corresponds with President Putin’s agenda and ‘brand’ in several ways. Putin obviously has taken a high profile position in combating jihadism not just in Russia but also in the post-Soviet space and more recently in the Middle East. It is very likely that the majority of Christians leaving the Middle East as the result of jihadi terror and wars in Iraq and Syria are Orthodox rather than Catholic. Moreover, in recent years he has tried to position himself as a defender of Christian culture and tradition at home and abroad. He has done so not just in relation to the onslaught on Christianity emenating from elements within Islam but also in contradistinction from what he views as the excessively liberal, secular, and atheist West.

Thus, the next politically-related issue raised in the declaration is closely tied to this issue. The declaration states its concern “about the situation in many countries in which Christians are increasingly confronted by restrictions to religious freedom, to the right to witness to one’s convictions and to live in conformity with them.” In particular, the Pope and the Patriarch (and Putin) fret both “the transformation of some countries into secularized societies,” which “constitutes a grave threat to religious freedom,” and the “current curtailment of the rights of Christians, if not outright discrimination,” by “certain political forces, guided by an often very aggressive secularist ideology,” seeking “to relegate them to the margins of public life.” In particular, the signatories ask for “vigilance” against aspects of an “European integration…devoid of respect for religious identities.” “Europe must remain faithful to its Christian roots,” they state, and they “call upon Christians of Eastern and Western Europe to unite in their shared witness to Christ and the Gospel, so that Europe may preserve its soul.”

More important, however, is the declaration’s treatment of Eastern Europe and the conflict in Ukriane. The Pope and the Patriarch extol “the current unprecedented renewal of the Christian faith in Russia, as well as in many other countries of Eastern Europe.” At the same time, they lament that “tensions exist between Greek Catholics and Orthodox” in the region. This is the first reference or allusion to the crisis in Ukraine, where the warring western and eastern parts of Ukraine are divided not only by ethnicity and several other factors, by the predominance of Greek Orthodoxy and Ukrainian Orthodoxy in the west and Russian Orthodoxy in the east, especially in Donbass and Crimea. Noting that all “the ecclesial communities” which emerged in particular “historical circumstances” “have the right to exist,” the declaration emphasizes that they must strive “to live in peace with their neighbors. Orthodox and Greek Catholics are in need of reconciliation and of mutually acceptable forms of co–existence.” Thus, the signatories “deplore the hostility in Ukraine that has already caused many victims, inflicted innumerable wounds on peaceful inhabitants and thrown society into a deep economic and humanitarian crisis” and “invite all the parties involved in the conflict to prudence, to social solidarity and to action aimed at constructing peace” and their own “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.” They also call for the schism between the Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox Churches in Ukraine to overcome their scism “through existing canonical norms” and “live in peace and harmony,” with the Catholic communities in the country contributing to this, such that “our Christian brotherhood may become increasingly evident.”

The concerns over the situation in the Middle East and perhaps less so in Ukraine suggest the central concern prompting the meeting: the fear of “world war” felt by the parties, both the signatories and the invisible presidential hand.

In the section on the Middle East, the Pope and the Patriarch issue “a fervent appeal” to all parties “involved in the conflicts” to demonstrate good will and to take part in the negotiating table.” They continue: “At the same time, the international community must undertake every possible effort to end terrorism through common, joint and coordinated action. We call on all the countries involved in the struggle against terrorism to responsible and prudent action. We exhort all Christians and all believers of God to pray fervently to the providential Creator of the world to protect His creation from destruction and not permit a new world war.”

This should be seen not simply as an appeal by two of the world’s leading religious institutions and leaders, but an expression of real fears extant in the Moscow Kremlin.

At the same time, the meeting and declaration are somewhat of a political coup for Putin. Regardless of what one thinks of Putin and his domestic and foreign policies, the Pope-Patriarch summit enhanced the Russian president’s standing vis-a-vis Europe and the West in the eyes of many by functioning as an endorsement of many of his policies and much of his worldview. The declaration’s implied call for Western-Russian cooperation in the war against jihadism in the Middle East, in resolving the crisis in Ukraine, and in avoiding war and securing peace also plays into Putin’s hands. In sum, not only was Putin present in Cuba, he scored something of a diplomatic triumph.


Gordon M. Hahn is an Analyst and Advisory Board Member of the Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation, Chicago, Illinois; Adjunct Professor and Senior Researcher, Middlebury Institute for International Studies at Monterey; Senior Researcher, Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, San Jose, California; a Contributor for Russia Direct,; and an Analyst/Consultant, Russia Other Points of View – Russia Media Watch, Dr Hahn is author of three well-received books, Russia’s Revolution From Above (Transaction, 2002), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), which was named an outstanding title of 2007 by Choice magazine, and The ‘Caucasus Emirate’ Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014). He also has authored hundreds of articles in scholarly journals and other publications on Russian, Eurasian and international politics. Dr. Hahn has taught Russian politics and other courses at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, St. Petersburg State (Russia), and San Francisco State Universities as well as the Middlebury Institute for International Studies at Monterey, California. He also has been a Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (2011-2013) and a Visiting Scholar at both the Hoover Institution and the Kennan Institute. His website is


  1. «The Pope! How many divisions has he got?» said sarcastically Joseph Stalin to Pierre Laval in 1935…

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