Orthodox say pope-patriarch meeting not an ‘all-clear’ sign

VATICAN CITY — Russian Orthodox officials said the planned meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow is not a signal that decades of tension have been resolved, but emphasizes the need to work together on behalf of persecuted Christians in the Middle East.

As the Vatican was announcing the Feb. 12 date for the meeting of the pope and patriarch in Cuba, the Russian Orthodox also held a news conference to speak about it.

Pope Francis meets with Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev of Volokolamsk, director of foreign relations for the Moscow patriarchate, during a private meeting at the Vatican in June 2015. Russian Orthodox officials said the planned meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow is not a signal that decades of tension have been resolved. (CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano via Reuters)

Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, director of foreign relations for the Moscow Patriarchate, told reporters the activity of the Ukrainian Catholics that prevented the Russian Orthodox from agreeing to a meeting in the past is still a problem today.

In a statement on the website of Metropolitan Hilarion’s office, he referred to the Ukrainian Catholics with the pejorative term “uniates,” and said, “Regrettably, the problem of the uniates is still there, with uniatism remaining a never-healing, bloody wound that prevents the full normalization of relations between the two churches.”

At Orthodox urging, the Catholic Church rejected “uniatism” — the uniting of a segment of an Orthodox Church with Rome — as a model for future Catholic-Orthodox union, but at the same time it affirmed the authenticity of Eastern Catholic churches formed in the past under such a model.

Metropolitan Hilarion said that despite Orthodox reservations about the Eastern Catholic churches, with the serious problem of religious persecution of Christians in the Middle East calling for action on the part of all Christians worldwide, “urgent measures and closer cooperation” are necessary. “In the present tragic situation, it is necessary to put aside internal disagreements and unite efforts for saving Christianity in the regions where it is subjected to the most severe persecution.”

As for the choice of Havana, Metropolitan Hilarion recalled that in the late 1990s serious efforts were made to arrange a meeting in Vienna between St. John Paul and then-Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow; the meeting never occurred.

In the current discussions, the metropolitan said, “Patriarch Kirill, from the very beginning, did not want it to take place in Europe, since it is with Europe that the grave history of divisions and conflicts between Christians is associated. The coincidence of the date of Patriarch Kirill’s visit to Latin American countries with that of the pope of Rome’s visit to Mexico has become an opportunity for holding the meeting in the New World, and we hope that it will open a new page in the relations between the two churches.”