The Catholic and Russian Orthodox Church have held high-level talks to lay the groundwork for a historic meeting of their two leaders after centuries of frostiness.
By Rachel Cooper
Relations between the Vatican and the Russian Orthodox Church have been tense for centuries, but in a sign that relations are finally thawing, Archbishop Ilarion, who heads the Russian Orthodox Church’s foreign relations department, said that both sides wanted a meeting, although he emphasised that problems remained.
Ilarion spoke of a rapprochement under Pope Benedict XVI that would allow for a meeting with the new Russian Orthodox Patriarch, Kiril, who took up his office in February after the death of the previous patriarch.“There have been visits at a high level,” said Illarion. “We are moving towards the moment when it will become possible to prepare a meeting between the Pope and the Moscow patriarch.”
He added that in recent years there had been “noticeable improvements” in relations between the two churches.
“The progress in relations between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church began after Benedict XVI became pope. He is…a person who does not aim to grow the Catholic Church in traditional Orthodox regions.”
Some observers had hinted a meeting between the two Church leaders was forthcoming, but many issues still stand in the way of bridging the split, which dates from 1054 when Patriarch of Constantinople was excommunicated from the Catholic Church.
The breach heralded the Great Schism that finally divided the Christian churches of East and West – which had long had political and theological differences, including the wording of the Nicene Creed – and led to the creation of the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church.
Relations have been tense ever since, and were strained again in recent years by Orthodox accusations of Catholics proselytising in Russia - although historians have cast doubt on such claims.
Mark Nash of the Agency for Evangelisation, who has studied the relationship between the Russian Orthodox and Catholic Church, said a "a lot of the instances of 'proselytising' were in orphanages and children's programmes.
"The chancellor of the Russian Bishops' Conference, Father Igor Kovalevsky, who was on the joint committee tasked with investigating the allegations, said they were 'misunderstandings'."
Dr Jeremy Smith, senior lecturer in Russian history at the University of Birmingham, added that his impression was that the Catholic Church "had not really engaged in proselytising".
"Consequently, [the Catholic church] has remained on relatively good terms with the Orthodox clergy, especially at a local level," he said.
He added that the Russian authorities aimed anti-proselytising laws "more strongly against organisations like the Moonies".
Such legislation, he added, marked an attempt by the government to establish the Russian Orthodox Church as "a centrepiece of Russian identity, albeit as a pillar of the state, after the fall of Communism".