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January 18, 2022

Putin’s shadow in Havana

Although having spectacular symbolical meaning, the meeting between the Orthodox Russian Patriarch and the Pope of the Catholic Church does not in fact surpass the level of current diplomatic practices. World leaders keep meeting on various occasions, but political developments or developments of a different nature depend far too little on most of these meetings.

At any rate, goodwill is not to be neglected, but is not to be admired either. Such a meeting in fact should have taken place a long time ago and should have become current ecumenical practice. Because this is what it is about first of all: ecumenism that has grown over the last century or so. The first who were reticent were the Catholics, but the Vatican II Council changed their orientation.

On the other hand, the Russian Patriarchy was marked by communist captivity, which entailed, after the Second World War, also embarking on the plans of Soviet imperialism: the Orthodox believers from communised countries were taken under Moscow’s aegis from a religious standpoint too.

The collapse of communism at the end of the 1980s put Russia on the defensive. And Russian Orthodoxy, despite being reborn in its own country, was cast into the shade at international level.

At this moment, it is more influential as ever under the authoritarian regime of Vladimir Putin, a leader that plays with pleasure the role of guarantor of the “moral order” that is convergent with the one desired by the Orthodox Church. In fact, the explanation for the meeting in Cuba primarily resides here: Patriarch Kirill is President Putin’s intermediary.

It is not by chance that the joint statement of the two religious leaders stresses the issue of protecting Christian minorities in the Middle East and elsewhere. The Russian President, like the Tsars of past centuries who justified their imperialist plans by invoking Christian solidarity, is now playing the card of the current Syrian President, presented as the only guarantor against the brutal Islamisation of the country. Unfortunately, the issue of the Christian minorities in the region concerns Western diplomats far too little, which gives the Russian President certain legitimacy, especially knowing the developments that have occurred so far in the Iraqi file.

Such a convergence between Orthodox and Catholics does not have, after all, another political exponent ready for action other than Vladimir Putin. The West has done far too little, apart from declarations, to protect Christian minorities that in recent years have dwindled as never before. De facto, the Middle East is Islamising with each passing day.

On the other hand, the Patriarch and Pope’s joint statement also includes a point dear to Vladimir Putin: the defence of traditional family. At a time when the Italian Government is trying to modify the civil law so that homosexual couples could adopt children too, the Catholic Church is on the defensive. The same opposition is manifested not only by the Russian Orthodox Church but also by the Putin regime, which adopted laws meant to deter homosexual relations in Russia. In fact, the Russian President’s popular success in recent years is also due to an intense propaganda campaign against Western values. There was even a campaign that saw young people publicly renouncing t-shirts with Western logos in favour of “patriotic” t-shirts. On issues of family and sexuality, the Orthodox and Catholics converge, especially in a world in which their values are becoming marginal. It is not by chance that a place “far from Europe,” the latter considered to be in full moral disarray, was chosen for the meeting.

However, Patriarch Kirill had another reason to accept a long-postponed meeting. This summer a pan-Orthodox Synod will take place in Crete, an event that is entirely unusual for an Orthodox world that is extremely fragmented and whose conflicts are not few in number. The Russians are glad that Istanbul – the initial location and the headquarters of the Ecumenical Patriarchy – was not chosen, precisely because they are in a centuries-old primacy competition.

The latter is a Church with a very small number of Orthodox, in contrast to the size of the Russian Church, but has prestige and venerable tradition on its side. The Russian Patriarchy, also because of the country’s post-communist convulsions and of a sometimes rigidly conservative position, is rather marginal.

That is precisely why it wants to regain wider influence. A more active role in ecumenical relations can be determinant in this sense. Orthodoxy too is looking for a leader with maximum international visibility, just as the Pope is for the Catholic world. President Putin would certainly like a Kirill that would second him in his diplomatic strategies.

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