Opinion: Religious obligations and political warnings | Opinion | DW | 13.02.2016
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Opinion: Religious obligations and political warnings

The meeting of Roman Catholic Pope Francis and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill marks a new chapter, DW's Christoph Strack writes. The leaders believe that "the world expects not only words but also deeds."

Nearly everyone has referred to the three-hour encounter between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill as "historic." Yet despite some weak points and generalizations, the 30 points listed in a joint statement reveal the details of an entirely new perspective on interchurch relations. The great significance of this document can be understood when one looks back in history.

Apart from some religious aspects, the document discusses three current problems. One is the dramatic situation of Christians and other minorities in the Middle East and northern Africa. Entire families have been exterminated; villages have been destroyed and looted. The two religious leaders have urged the international community to "unite and put an end to violence and terrorism." They also demand "large-scale humanitarian aid for the afflicted populations and the many refugees."


DW's Christoph Strack

The subject discussed most comprehensively, the Middle East, was announced in advance and thus came as no surprise. It was also expected that the pope and the patriarch would express their views on the importance of marriage and family. Many had feared this, as Kirill is a known proponent of the discrimination of homosexuals. Two paragraphs in the document note a distinct recognition of marriage and family and regret over the equal treatment of "other forms of cohabitation." There is no trace of Francis' occasional, unpronounced respect for other forms of cohabitation. In exchange, the pope has added a few lines about ecological dangers and economic injustice.

More surprising than anything else was the manner in which the two men touched upon Ukraine - and no difference was made between Ukraine, eastern Ukraine and the Crimean Peninsula. They spoke of a conflict that has "thrown society in a grave economic and humanitarian crisis." When the two churches advise Ukraine not to allow the conflict to develop further, some Russian Orthodox clergy might feel that they were being addressed directly. But the subject of Ukraine was treated like the recent escalation of hostilities in Syria: The responsible politicians - and especially Russia's role - are not addressed or even mentioned. So, this may mean that everyone can interpret the points as they wish.

'But also deeds'

It is remarkable that the document is so concrete, as are its fundamental statements on ecumenism and the interconnectedness of the churches. The religious leaders believe that "the world expects not only words but also deeds." Gone is the hatred that had been evident in some past Orthodox opinions. Now Orthodoxy and Catholicism are often mentioned in the same breath and the churches are working on interreligious dialogue and a respectful attitude toward the convictions of other traditions. Unfortunately, Protestants are not explicitly named anywhere.

Days before the trip to Havana, Moscow was thinking and hoping that the meeting in Cuba would strengthen the Russian patriarch's position within Orthodox Christianity, especially with regard to Bartholomew, the archbishop of Constantinople and ecumenical patriarch. The Greek patriarch, a renowned theologian, is probably relaxed about the situation. In a message he tweeted to the two leaders, the 75-year-old said he was praying for his brothers in Christ: Pope Francis and "Pat" Kirill. He also stated that in 1964 his predecessor Athenagoras had initiated a dialogue with Pope Paul VI that is now yielding fruit.

At first, it seemed awkward: A 79-year-old and 69-year-old who call each other brothers meet for the first time. The meeting ensued from a symbolically long road throughout centuries of enmity and years of backdoor church diplomacy. Will the two of them ever meet again? If they do, the meeting would probably be more intimate the second time around.

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