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25 Nov, 2013 16:21

Putin and Pope Francis’s first meeting focuses on Christians’ plight in Mideast

Hopes were high for warmer relations between the Russian Orthodox and Catholic churches as President Vladimir Putin flew Monday to Rome for his first audience with Pope Francis. Topping the agenda is likely help for Christians in the Middle East.

Putin, an Orthodox Christian, has repeatedly said that he is a man of faith and his administration has consistently sought closer ties with the Russian Orthodox Church.

His policies “have brought religion to the forefront and triggered positive change in ecumenical relations," said Natalya Pecherskaya, rector of the St. Petersburg School of Religion and Philosophy.

But state interests will come first on the visit, officials said.

"Putin will be meeting Pope Francis as the president of Russia, and then only secondly as a Russian Orthodox [Christian]," said Father Kirill Gorbunov, a spokesman for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of the Mother of God in Moscow.

As well as his visit with the Holy Father in the Vatican, Putin will meet with Italian president Giorgio Napolitano and Romano Prodi, the country’s former premier and a special UN representative, in Rome. On Tuesday, Putin will travel to Trieste for talks with the Italian government.

The Kremlin announced ahead of the visit that Putin and Pope Francis would focus on the state of international institutions and their ability to respond to crises, as well as the protection of Christian minorities in the Maghreb and the Middle East.

President Vladimir Putin visiting His Holiness Pope Francis @Pontifex@TerzaLoggia@KremlinRussia_E#Vatican#Russiapic.twitter.com/wlfSTekP76

— MFA Russia (@mfa_russia) November 25, 2013

It’s not the first time Pope Francis has addressed topical political issues: before the Group of 20 Summit in early September, the pontiff implored Putin to seek a peaceful resolution to the Syrian crisis, along with other world leaders.

"To the leaders present, to each and every one, I make a heartfelt appeal for them to help find ways to overcome the conflicting positions and to lay aside the futile pursuit of a military solution [in Syria]," Pope Francis wrote in his letter to Putin. "Rather, let there be a renewed commitment to seek, with courage and determination, a peaceful solution through dialogue and negotiation of the parties, unanimously supported by the international community."

Yury Ushakov, senior foreign policy aide to Putin, said the Pope’s letter had “served as a constructive background for the discussion of the Syrian crisis during the [G20] summit. Afterward, an interesting and rather positive development happened, taking into account the initiatives suggested by our president.”

In recent months, violent attacks on Christians in Syria, Libya and other hotspots in the Middle East have featured increasingly in media reports.

Christians, who comprise about 10 per cent of Syria's population, are viewed as supporters of President Bashar Assad, fearing the Islamist ideology of some rebels.

Iraqi people gather outside of a destroyed church following an explosion in Baghdad.(AFP Photo / Jewel Samad)

“I believe it is all systematic and planned,” Sami Housni, a Christian priest in Damascus, told RT. “Forcing Christians to leave… In Iraq, for instance, less than 200,000 Christians remain. We do have concerns, and we do hope to stay in our land, Syria, which is the cradle of Christianity. We also hope that the Pope and the heads of Christian denominations will call for the renunciation of violence and the adoption of dialogue.”

During Putin’s Vatican meeting there are no plans to pass along any official communication from Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, to the pontiff, Ushakov said.

For nearly a thousand years, tensions have dominated relations between the Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches, which were split in the Great Schism of 1054.

Last week, ahead of Putin’s trip to the Vatican, Patriarch Kirill met with a senior Catholic archbishop in Moscow.
"We live in an epoch when many of our historic differences should no longer play the negative role they have played in relations between our churches," Kirill told journalists, as quoted by RIA Novosti news agency.

During his years in power, Putin has visited the Vatican three times, meeting with John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Then-President Dmitry Medvedev also paid a visit to Pope Benedict XVI.

Putin’s last visit to the Vatican took place in 2010, when he was Russia’s prime minister.

These visits have formed the backdrop for strengthening ties between Russia and the Vatican – which is, after all, a sovereign state. In 2011, Russia and the Vatican signed a cooperation agreement in the field of child health care, and last month the countries agreed to increase cooperation between their respective academic institutions and museums.

The reason Russian Orthodox Patriarchs and Catholic Popes have not met in recent decades has both ancient and modern roots. There has been a centuries-old dispute between the Russian Orthodox and Greek Catholic churches, and the Russian Orthodox Church says the Catholics wrongfully seized its property in the 1980s and 1990s. 

Under Soviet leader Josef Stalin, Eastern Catholic churches were handed over to the Russian Orthodox Church. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Catholics took back more than 500 churches, mostly in western Ukraine.