FaithWorld

Pope, Moscow patriarch moving slowly towards possible meeting

hilarionA senior Russian Orthodox leader has said the idea of a meeting between Moscow’s Patriarch Kirill and Pope Benedict could be moving towards the preparation stage. Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev, the “foreign minister” of the Russian church, made clear that neither a date nor a location for such the long-awaited meeting was under discussion. But given the glacial pace at which progress on this issue is made, even the change in tone from Moscow is worth noting.

There has never been a meeting between a pope and the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, the largest of the Orthodox Churches that make up the second biggest Christian family after Roman Catholicism. The late Pope John Paul II wanted to make history with a visit to Russia, but strains between the Vatican and Moscow over alleged Catholic proselytising in the former Soviet Union got in the way. (Photo: Archbishop Hilarion in Brussels, 11 May 2009/Francois Lenoir)

The election of Pope Benedict in 2005 and of Patriarch Kirill early this year seemed to close that chapter of the churches’ bilateral relations and open a new one moving towards a possible meeting. But despite the warmer tone in comments from each side, problems still remained.  Only last month, Hilarion denied reports of an impending meeting and said relations needed a “radical improvement.”

kasperThe Interfax news agency quoted Hilarion as telling reporters in Moscow: “Today it can be said that we are moving to a moment when it becomes possible to prepare a meeting between the Pope and the Patriarch of Moscow … There are no specific plans for the venue or timing of such a meeting but on both sides there is a desire to prepare it.” (Photo: Cardinal Kasper in Moscow, 29 May 2008/Alexander Natruskin)

Hilarion added with approval that that Benedict is “a very reserved, traditional man who does not seek the expansion of the Catholic Church to traditionally Orthodox regions.”

Russia’s Medvedev calls on muftis to combat extremism

medvedevRussian President Dmitry Medvedev, battling a low-level Muslim insurgency in Russia’s south, has met Muslim leaders and asked them to spread a message of tolerance to combat Islamist extremism.

Medvedev met 12 muftis, Muslim spiritual leaders, from across the country on Wednesday in the pre-revolutionary Congregational Mosque in central Moscow, said by Muslims to be one of the oldest in European Russia. (Photo: President Medvedev (L) and Chief Mufti Ravil Gaynutdin in Moscow, 15 July 2009/RIA Novosti)

Although the Kremlin has calmed the province of Chechnya by installing a strong local leader, violence has flared in other areas of the volatile, poverty-ridden North Caucasus. Killings of police and local officials are on the rise.

Russian Othodox Church picks Kirill, better Vatican ties expected

The Russian Orthodox Church elected Metropolitan Kirill, 62, as its new leader on Tuesday, succeeding Alexiy II who died last month. The new leader of the 165 million-strong Church, the largest in the Orthodox world,  is seen as a moderniser who may thaw long icy ties with the Roman Catholic Church.

There was speculation before the vote that nationalists, anti-westerners and anti-Catholic forces among the clergy and monks might rally to block Kirill’s election. He seemed to take the possibility seriously enough to strike a conservative tone in recent days. In his address before the vote, Kirill spoke of “the assault of aggressive Western secularism against Christianity” and of “attempts by some Protestant groups to revise the teachings of Christianity and evangelical morality”. He also hit out at Protestant and Roman Catholic missionaries, saying they sought converts in post-Soviet Russia — a key point of discord with the Vatican. (Photo: Metropolitan Kirill before the vote, 27 Jan 2009/Alexander Natruskin)

But the vote showed his support was strong. Kirill received 508 votes from a total of 677 valid ballots cast. His rival, conservative nationalist Metropolitan Kliment, 59, polled just 169 votes and a third candidate, Metropolitan Filaret of Belarus, withdrew in favour of Kirill.

Soviet touches mark Russian Orthodox patriarch vote session

(Photo: Russian Orthodox prelates vote for candidates for patriarch, 26 Jan 2009/pool)

There was a slightly Soviet air to the proceedings as bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church voted on Sunday for three candidates to be considered as their new patriarch. Meeting in the gold-domed Christ the Saviour cathedral overlooking the Moskva River, just a few hundred metres from the Kremlin, about 200 metropolitans and bishops had delegates badges dangling from their necks along with their usual pectoral crosses. A Soviet-style “presidium” of 16 top prelates presided over the session in the Hall of Church Councils. The proceedings started with voting for an election committee, a drafting committee and a credentials committee. Journalists covering the session couldn’t help but think of the old communist party conferences.

Seated in the middle of this “presidium,” Metropolitan Kirill — the acting patriarch and frontrunner for the top post — added to the atmosphere by chairing the meeting with a distinctively firm hand. But there were differences, of course. Voting for the three candidates was secret. And when it came time to announce the results of the vote, there was no official stamp to validate the protocol. (Photo: Metropolitan Kirill addresses the Council of Bishops, 25 Jan 2009/Alexander Natruskin)

For readers outside of Russia, the only other major church election they might have seen in the news was the 2005 Roman Catholic conclave that picked Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to become Pope Benedict XVI. That vote took place behind locked doors in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel, beneath Michelangelo’s famous ceiling and his huge fresco of the Last Judgment behind the altar. Here the “presidium” sat in front of polished stone images of the 12 Apostles in a kind of modern icon style. Journalists were allowed in for the opening of the session,  had to leave during the pre-vote debates but could return for the actual voting and result.

Strong showing for Kirill in first round of Russian Orthodox vote

Frontrunner Metropolitan Kirill made a strong showing in the first round of the Russian Orthodox voting for a new patriarch on Sunday. He won 97 of the 197 votes cast in the Council of Bishops, which picked three candidates for the final voting by the Local Council of about 700 priests, monks and laymen this week. His main rival, Metropolitan Kliment, picked up 32 votes while the third candidate, Metropolitan Filaret, got 16 votes.

See a full report here from our Moscow bureau. (Photo: Metropolitan Kirill, 19 Oct 2008/Ramon Espinosa)

The next round of voting, to be held in a Local Council session lasting from Tuesday to Thursday, requires a  majority of 99 votes. That puts Kirill just two votes behind the magic number. If one of the three candidates does not get an outright majority, the third man drops out and the two others go into a run-off. Church watchers say the Local Council will have many delegates who are more nationalist, anti-western and anti-ecumenical minded than Kirill and might vote for anyone but him. Watch this space…

In Moscow next week, it’s all about Kirill

The Russian Orthodox Church election of a new patriarch next week is shaping up as a vote for or against Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad.  Already the acting head of the Church since the death of Patriarch Alexiy II last month, Kirill is the clear frontrunner and the man who other churches — especially the Roman Catholic Church — would like to see take the top post. Those two factors, though, could work against him when the Council of Bishops and the Local Council — the two bodies that conduct the election — meet. (Photo: Metropolitan Kirill, 6 Jan 2009/Alexander Natruskin)

Dmitry Solovyov in our Moscow bureau has provided a rundown of the leading candidates in the election, which begins with the meeting of the Council of Bishops on Jan. 25-26, and a rundown of the leading candidates. The bishops will propose three candidates, who will then be voted on by the Local Council of 711 representatives of clergy and laity during its Jan. 27-29 session. The new patriarch will be installed on Feb. 1.

This will be the first patriarchal election since the end of the Soviet Union (the last one was in 1990, a year before communism collapsed there) and since the spectacular revival of the Russian Orthodox Church. One effect very visible abroad was the higher profile the Church has taken in ecumenical exchanges. Less visible to those outside Russia are the different currents in the Church, such as nationalists, anti-westerners, critics of ecumenism and others, who oppose that new openness and activism. If they can close ranks, they could block Kirill’s ascension.

Russian Orthodox church removes wild card from new patriarch’s election

One of the most intriguing questions about the voting for a  new Russian Orthodox patriarch on Jan. 27-29 has been answered. Speculation about the succession began as soon as the late Patriarch Alexiy died in December, but it had an unusual extra layer of uncertainty. Orthodox church leaders sometimes elect the top three candidates and then pick the winner by drawing lots. This, they say, lets the Holy Spirit have the final say. So even a strong front-runner could be passed over.

During the Roman Catholic Church’s papal transition in 2005,  we speculated about the papabili (papal contenders) for days and explained in detail the complex rules for the election of a new pope. The “apostolic method,” as the election by lots is called, would inject additional uncertainty into the Orthodox vote — if  they used it. (Photo: Metropolitan Kirill leads Orthodox Christmas service in Moscow’s Christ The Saviour Cathedral, 7 Jan. 2009/pool)

But Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, the acting patriarch who is also a front-runner, has indicated that this wild card has been taken out of the patriarchal election procedure. In an interview with the Russian news agency Interfax, he said earlier heads of the Church had usually been chosen by the tsar or elected in open ballots. “His Holiness Patriarch Alexiy II was elected by secret ballot out of three candidates suggested by the Archbishop Council,” Kirill said. “Years of his ministry proved it was the right choice made by God’s will.”

Russian Orthodox to elect new patriarch in late January

The Russian Orthodox are wasting no time with the election of their new leader to replace the late Patriarch Alexiy. Although Church statutes give them six months to ponder the decision, a Holy Synod meeting today decided to hold a General Council in late January to elect a successor.

“On Jan. 27 the General Council will open. It will be held on Jan. 28-29,” acting Partriarch Kirill — one of the frontrunning candidates — said in Moscow.

“Jan. 30-31 will be dedicated to preparations for the enthronement of the newly elected Holy Patriarch. The enthronement will be held on Feb. 1,” he told journalists in Moscow.

How TASS got the scoop on the last Russian Orthodox election

The death of Russian Orthodox Patriach Alexiy II and talk about his possible successor got Aleksandras Budrys, a correspondent in our Moscow bureau, to reminiscing about how he covered Alexiy’s election in 1990 for the official news agency TASS. Here’s his account of reporting on religion near the end of communism in Russia: (Photo: Patriarch Alexiy II, 30 April 2000/Vladimir Suvorov)

As a TASS correspondent for religious issues, I was the first to report the election of Patriarch Alexiy II in early June 1990. The scoop was made possible because I was allowed to stay in monk’s cells at the monastery where the vote took place while all the other journalists were sent away.

The election process took a little less than three days. On the first day, all the hierarchs of the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church gathered at the refectory church at the Holy Trinity and St Sergius monastery outside Moscow.

Saudi offer for Moscow mosque, Orthodox call for church in Arabia

A Saudi offer to build a large mosque in Moscow has prompted Russian Orthodox organisations to ask for permission to build an Orthodox church in Saudi Arabia. Several western Christian churches have asked for or suggested such reciprocity with Saudi Arabia, which funds mosques abroad but bans any religion but Islam at home. It’s an issue that can only become more pressing if King Abdullah continues to preach interfaith dialogue and tolerance around the globe while not practicing it at home.

The Russian Muftis Council announced the Saudi offer to fund a mosque last week, promting an open letter to King Abdullah a few days later by what Interfax news agency called Orthodox public organisations. It didn’t come from the Russian Orthodox Church itself, but watch this space. The Russians have become increasingly active on the world religious scene as they emerge from the communist era and it would not be surprising to see them take a position on this question as well. There is probably also a domestic angle to this. Islam is the second largest religion in Russia and growing, so the Orthodox Church might feel a bit of competition. (Photo: St. Basil’s Cathedral on Moscow’s Red Square, 27 Jan 2007/Denis Sinyakov)

“You often say that Islam is a religion of justice. However, if Saudi Arabia builds mosques in dozens of Christian countries, isn’t it just to build a church for Christians living in Your Kingdom!” says the letter quoted by Interfax. “It would be just to create the same conditions for Saudi Christians as Muslims have in Russia … It is the only way to make interreligious dialogue honest and just.”