POPE FRANCIS is expected to meet Patriarch Kirill of Moscow during a forthcoming visit to Kazakhstan, despite calls for sanctions to be imposed on the Russian Orthodox leader for backing his country’s war aims in Ukraine.
In a statement on Monday, the Vatican confirmed that Pope Francis would attend a Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions in the Kazakh capital, Nur-Sultan, from 13 to 15 September.
Although talks with Patriarch Kirill are not yet arranged, the Pope assured the Spanish-language Univision network on 11 July that he had a “good relationship” with the Russian Patriarch, who has also agreed to attend the Congress.
“We are going to meet in Kazakhstan because there is a religious meeting there,” the Pope told Univision. “His position is conditioned in some way by his homeland — which is not to say that he is an indecent man. No, God knows each person’s moral responsibilities in the depth of their hearts.”
News of the prospective meeting, which will be their second after an encounter in Cuba in February 2016, came as the first of 16 ships carrying Ukrainian grain left the Black Sea port of Odesa; a five-month blockade has heightened fears of famine in parts of Africa.
It also followed church condemnations of an explosion over the weekend at a Russian-operated prisoner centre at Olenivka, near Donetsk, mostly housing former Ukrainian fighters from Mariupol, as well as of a video of Russian soldiers castrating and murdering a Ukrainian prisoner.
The atrocities were denounced as a cynical “attempt to scare the world” by the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Primate, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchu, as well as by Metropolitan Epiphany (Dumenko), of the independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine, who warned those responsible that they faced a “new Nuremberg”.
The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry has appealed to the International Criminal Court to investigate the Olenivka attack, in which 53 Ukrainian POWS were killed and 75 others were wounded. Russian officials, however, maintain that the facility had been attacked from Ukrainian territory. United Nations and Red Cross officials said that they were still seeking access to the site on Tuesday.
In a speech at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, in Moscow, Patriarch Kirill dismissed “malicious people, including those in Ukraine”, who maintained that his Church was “only for Russians and Muscovites”. He said that he had a “special relationship” with people in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, who were “suffering because of political processes”.
Patriarch Kirill told a large group of Ukrainian children: “Some recognise this, confess it with joy, and participate in the life of our Church, whereas some have taken the path of illegal schismatic separation from our Church.”
The Moscow Patriarchate said that the children were from “affected families of the Donetsk People’s Republic, as well as from liberated areas the Kharkov region”, although Ukraine’s Religious Information Service said that some were forced deportees.
“For me, all Orthodox people living in the Russian Federation, Ukraine, the Donbas, and other places in 60 countries worldwide are all children of the Russian Orthodox Church. As Patriarch, I am humbly aware of my responsibility for these people and their spiritual life,” Kirill said.
Speaking at the weekend, Metropolitan Epiphany said that he had written to the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I, urging him to begin consultations for declaring Kirill deposed because of his “spiritual crimes”. He said that the proposal had support from Orthodox Churches that had severed ties with the Moscow Patriarchate after recognising his new Ukrainian denomination.
Last week, Lithuania became the latest Western country, after the UK and Canada, to impose a travel ban on Patriarch Kirill. The country’s Interior Ministry said that this was due to his “justification and support for Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine, in gross violation of norms and principles of international law”.
The Congress, in mostly Muslim Kazakhstan, will follow the planned participation of a large Russian Orthodox delegation at the World Council of Churches’ Assembly, from 31 August to 8 September, which has drawn protests from prominent Christian figures.
In a message from Rome on Sunday, the Pope again urged negotiations to end the war; he continued to pray “for the suffering and battered Ukrainian people”.
In a separate address on 28 July at a service in Moscow commemorating Grand Duke Volodymyr, of Kievan Rus (c.958-1015), however, Patriarch Kirill said that he was praying for a healing of “wounds of division inflicted on the unity of peoples who came out of a common font of baptism.
“We see with sorrow how, having abandoned their roots, once great Christian nations have fallen into the madness of relativism, leading to spiritual and moral degradation, and the loss of cultural identity.
“We live in a time when the enemy of the human race has sown and nurtured seeds of discord among the peoples of historical Russia. This has happened before in our history; for the unity and peace commanded by God are always a target for evil forces.”
Leaders of the main Ukrainian Christian Churches held a joint service with Muslim and Jewish representatives the same day, to mark the first Day of Ukrainian Statehood in St Sophia Cathedral, Kyiv, during which prayers were delivered to “defeat the enemy”.
In a televised national address, President Zelensky pledged that Ukraine would remain a “free, sovereign, indivisible, and independent state”, and would “fight for statehood to the last breath, the last cartridge, the last soldier”.