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Why Did The Pope Visit The Russian Embassy?

February 26, 2022 09:41 IST

It stands to reason that at the meeting on Friday, Pope Francis conveyed to the Kremlin, some message in regard of the developments in Ukraine.
The long duration of the meeting in the Russian embassy flags that it was substantive.
Indeed, it took place even as the first Russian tank column was sighted on the outskirts of Kyiv, notes Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar.

Pope Francis with Russian President Vladmir Putin

IMAGE: Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Pope Francis at the Vatican, July 4, 2019. Photograph: Alessandro Di Meo/Pool via Reuters

Papacy is back in global politics -- that is, assuming it ever left. Pope Francis's gesture to visit the Russian embassy in Rome on Friday undoubtedly makes a notable event, for a variety of reasons.

Pope Francis has a enduring reputation as a 'pinkish pope' credited with progressive views -- he once refused to grant an audience to then US secretary of state Mike Pompeo -- and his trip on Friday came within hours of reports that the first Russian tank column had appeared on the outskirts of Kyiv.

The Vatican has a centuries-old 'foreign service' of diplomats and spies, think-tanks' and journalists. Nothing that a pope does is ever coincidental. There is also the ponderous Vatican bureaucracy, which takes the decisions for the pope. But, interestingly, Pope Francis's visit to the Russian embassy on Friday was not listed in his customary daily programme sheet of engagements.

That alone makes it an extraordinary, hands-on papal gesture that has no recent precedent. CNN reported that the pope was speaking with the Russian ambassador for more than an hour-and-a -half.

Pope Francis has called for the peaceful end of the conflict in Ukraine and is urging Catholics to set Wednesday aside as a day of fasting and prayer dedicated to peace in Ukraine.

By way of background, after the CIA-sponsored coup in Ukraine in 2014 and the commencement of the anti-Russian trajectory of the new regime in Kyiv, a schism was engineered in the Orthodox Christianity, as Ukraine separated itself by establishing its own Orthodox church called the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in December 2018 -- distinct and autonomous from the Russian Orthodox Church.

Ukraine's then president Petro Poroshenko had famously said at that time, while addressing the believers who celebrated Mass under the golden domes of St Michael's Cathedral in Kyiv to mark the formal split, that his country would 'no longer drink Moscow's poison from Moscow's chalice.'

By late 2018 and early 2019, when Orthodox Christians in Ukraine declared independence, or autocephaly, from the Orthodox Patriarchate in Russia, Russians, in general, waffled between two emotions -- shock and devastation.

At any rate, the Orthodox Church in Constantinople promptly set about recognising the independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, while Russian Orthodox leaders refused. The result: Two opposing Orthodox factions in the country today.

It is into the vortex of this schism in the Orthodox Church that Pope Francis has entered. No doubt, he would have been intensely conscious of it. Actually, there is a hypothesis that the political rifts between Russia and Ukraine even extend to the religious realm -- or vice versa, depending on how one views it -- considering that President Vladmir Putin himself is a devout Orthodox Christian and is personally close to Moscow Patriarch Kirill.

Catholics in Ukraine are estimated at about 4-5 million people, about 9 percent of the population. The main characteristic feature of Ukrainian Catholicism is the predominance of the Greek Catholics over the Catholics of the Latin rite. The Ukrainian Catholic Church is an Eastern Rite Catholic church that recognises the pope as its head, but follows Byzantine liturgy.

Pope Francis is known to practice ecumenism through relationships, personal encounters, and ecumenical gestures. In fact, since the Great Schism of 1054 when the Catholic church and the Orthodox churches as a community parted ways, it was Pope Francis who had the first meeting ever with the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church (the largest of the Eastern Orthodox churches) when he met Patriarch Kirill in February 2016 at a pre-arranged meeting in a VIP room at the international airport near Havana, Cuba. (Cuban dignitaries attending the occasion included President Raul Castro.)

After a two-hour private meeting, they signed a joint declaration on a range of topics that 'focused on the unity of the Christian church and their unique role as brothers in the Christian faith.'

Analysts say Pope Francis's meeting with Patriarch Kirill had a geopolitical dimension, given Putin's assertion of Russia's influence on the world stage and his 'political alliance' with Patriarch Kirill . This needs some explaining.

It is well-known that Patriarch Kirill's policies have brought the Russian Orthodox Church closer to the Russian State through the past two decades. In the 2012 Russian presidential election, he openly supported Putin, likening Putin's presidency to 'a miracle from God'.

Now, it is no secret that Moscow Patriarchate has acted as an instrument of Russian international policy and has been an effective transmitter worldwide of the Kremlin's political interests.

In fact, Pope Francis even drew some flak for allowing himself to be used by a Russia eager to assert itself. But then, he had his answer ready. When he was asked about the possibility of being the first pope to visit Russia and China, Francis once pointed to his heart and said: 'China and Russia, I have them here. Pray.'

Putin has met Pope Francis three times. A trio of audiences with the pope for a world statesman is exceedingly rare, if ever. They are known to have discussed politics.

That said, no Catholic church leader has yet entered the domain of Russian Orthodoxy. And it remains a coveted destination for a papal trip. Francis enjoys a great reputation in Russia, and some suspect Patriarch Kirill might even be jealous of the Argentine-born pope's popularity.

Putin's second meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican lasting 50 minutes (quite lengthy as far as papal audiences go) took place in June 2015 within months of Crimea's return to Russia. The Vatican said at that time that Pope Francis demanded 'sincere and comprehensive efforts for peace' in Ukraine and the pair had agreed that a 'climate of dialogue' had to be restored and that 'all parties' had to adhere to the Minsk agreements.

It stands to reason that at the meeting on Friday, Pope Francis conveyed to the Kremlin, some message in regard of the developments in Ukraine. The long duration of the meeting in the Russian embassy flags that it was substantive. Indeed, it took place even as the first Russian tank column was sighted on the outskirts of Kyiv.

Given Pope Francis's flair for geopolitics, his empathy with Russian foreign policy and his critique of the West in many ways, the in-person visit to the Russian embassy -- the pope could always have summoned the ambassador, which is the usual practice -- makes it an extraordinary hands-on gesture

Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar served the Indian Foreign Service for 29 years.