Experts: Declaration signed by Pope Francis I and Patriarch Kirill in Cuba not to cause radical change in religious life of Ukraine and to facilitate consolidation of Ukrainian Christians


Kyiv, March 2, 2016. Meeting of the Pope Francis I and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill in Cuba and signing the Joint Declaration is quite important and at the same time ambiguous event. “This meeting fits within multiple contexts which must be taken into account, for this common context is quite transparent in the first seven paragraphs of the Declaration,” said Volodymyr Burega, vice-rector for scientific and theological work at the Kyiv Theological Academy during discussion held at Ukraine Crisis Media Center, where the participants tried to look into various aspects of this event and forecast possible impact it may have on religious, social and political life in Ukraine.

Participants of the discussion assessed the signed declaration as quite disputable. On one hand, its execution is a positive step at least because it is an attempt to open a dialogue and a major step towards reconciliation. On the other hand, the text of the declaration may be interpreted loosely, “from one extremes to the other, […] often there are no things that were supposed to be there; nevertheless, there is something in common the parties agree to sign,” said Father Petro Balokh, Deputy Director of the Thomas Aquinas Institute of Religious Sciences. At the same time, there are grounds to believe that the parties might be not absolutely sincere when signing this document, said Victor Yelenskyi, religious scholar, MP, Chairman of the Subcommittee on state policy in the sphere of freedom of conscience and religious organizations. “The Declaration contains things that are simply untrue, for instance, statement on presumable blossom of religious freedom in the Russian Federation. We receive information of demolished houses of worship, fined pastors and so on. It happens every week, saying nothing of what is happening on the Russia-occupied territories,” he emphasized. Liudmyla Fylypovych, religious scholar, head of the history of religion and religious practice at the Institute of Philosophy of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, drew attention to the fact that the text of the declaration clearly shows which part (likely, the first one) was drafted in Vatican and which one (the second one, in particular in what regarded Ukraine) – in Moscow. The second part was edited later to adjust the wording to the one acceptable for Vatican.

For instance, paragraphs 25-27 regarding Ukraine induce the biggest number of controversial comments. Paragraph 26 mentions the armed conflict in Donbas. “The term used in the text is ‘opposition’: ‘сontra’ in Italian and ‘hostilities’ in English, which also slightly changes the meaning,” said Father Andriy Zelinskyi, military chaplain. According to him, Ukrainian soldiers believe this word is too general. “They say: is it not aggression, is it not war?” said Zelinskyi. Another question from Ukrainian refers to the declared attempt of the churches “to stay above the conflict” and support realization of peace. An irony of the conflict in Donbas is the fact that Ukrainian troops got the blessing of the Orthodox Church “to defend their motherland from people who are illegally present in Ukraine”, while the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, in its turn, blessed militants of the self-proclaimed republics to participate in this war. Moreover, Zelinskyi reminded there were repeated cases when priests of the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate took to arms themselves. At present Patriarch Kirill, who is the head of the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, confirmed that church cannot support any party to the conflict by signing the Declaration. “Soldiers ask why in that case there was no appeal to Russia-backed militant groups and Russian troops to put down arms,” explained Father Andriy.

There have been heated discussions on interpretation of the paragraph referring to the Greek Catholic Church, from “all is lost, Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and Kyiv Patriarchate will be liquidated” to praises. I believe no document relating to Catholic-Orthodox dialogue induce such response, at least in social media,” said Taras Antoshevskyi, director of the Religious Information Service of Ukraine. Representatives of the Moscow Patriarchate, both in Russia and in conservative orthodox circles in Ukraine, interpret this paragraph as condemnation of Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC). Greek Catholics are indignant not to be engaged into discussion; many people treated it as betrayal. “This church was persecuted for its loyalty to the Holy See only, and it’s not very fair to treat UGCC as something that can be sacrificed for the sake of illusory Christian unity, if not as ‘collateral damage’,” said Yelenskyi. “The important fact is that Ukrainians [in these circumstances] at last manifested themselves as historic subject and openly protested against paragraphs 26-27 of the Declaration,” said Fylypovych. She reminded there were protest marches on Western Europe bout this, and students of Ukrainian Catholic University published an address to the Pope. Yelenskyi added that at the truth the Pope Francis I has little awareness of the situation with Christianity in Eastern Europe, unlike South America. Should representatives of Ukrainian society persist in informing him on the Ukrainians’ point of view, he might grow more benevolent. At the same time, Antoshevskyi said that “not everyone in Vatican is fond of Ukraine. Russian propaganda is extremely influential there and we must admit it”.

Nevertheless, the supporters of the “optimistic interpretation” see no threat to Greek Catholics in the Declaration, for the Declaration “condemns unionism and not union as such,” said Burega. “According to the Declaration, Orthodox and Catholics must seek an agreement, overcoming historical burden and abandoning conflicts that happened in the past. […] In fact, it is a “green light” in seeking a dialogue between Orthodox and Catholics,” he stated. Burega also said that interreligious dialogue between lower clergy established long ago, so the fact that “the words of conciliation were approved on the highest level” is quite positive. Moreover, such wording gives grounds for believing that the Russian Federation will become much more tolerant to Roman Catholic and Greek Catholic Church, regardless of the fact that the Declaration reflects intentions rather than direct obligation.

The meeting itself is an ambiguous event. On one hand, it is the first meeting of the highest representatives of major Christian religions Vatican was preparing itself for 20 years. On the other hand, Burega said that the meeting between the Pope and the head of the Orthodox Church is not something unprecedented. He reminded that meetings between Orthodox and Catholics were quite frequent in 1960-80th, and it was only in 1990th-2000th that these ties were corroded, especially following harassment of Catholic eparchies on the territory of the Russian Federation. “At present Kirill is in fact trying to go back to the paradigm of cooperation with Vatican which brings him back to what he grew in,” explained Burega. He added that the patriarch started his religious and political career at that period.

Yelenskyi and Burega emphasized that this meeting must be treated from geopolitical viewpoint as well. Yelenskyi reminded that the idea of a similar meeting appeared as far back as in the time of John                Paul II. Nevertheless, there was too much animosity between the parties. “The meeting was possible only when Russia exhausted all the other options to end isolation it found itself in,” he emphasized. Under these circumstances, high-level interreligious dialogue is an available and so far rather successful instrument of influencing the western countries’ opinion. This is not a new practice: “The more complicated relations between the Soviet Union and western world became at that time, the more important grew religious contacts,” added Burega. The fact that this unprecedented meeting with the Pope – religious representative of the western world – took place amid strident anti-Western rhetoric of the state and the church in Russia itself is serious evidence that Kirill is driven by such motivation. “The Pope and his advisers might understand they are dealing not just with a religious figure, but with a top diplomat clothed in patriarchal coat.  Nevertheless, the Pope finds it possible to exchange “essential for eternal”, geopolitics for declaration turned into millennia,” acknowledged Yelenskyi. Moreover, Father Balokh said that “the Declaration will be forgotten in a while, while the embraces and time of the meeting will be remembered”.   Search of a mighty ally in fighting secularization of modern world might be another reason of the Patriarch’s consent to be engaged in interreligious dialogue. “Secularization relates to Protestant religion in the first place, and Catholics are regarded as allies in fight against secularization,” explained Burega. He said that de-christianization of Europe became a serious challenge for the Catholic Church itself, which became one of the reasons for Francis to agree to this meeting.

Zelinskyi drew attention to the fact that the meeting between Francis I and Patriarch Kirill was happening simultaneously with negotiations in Munich. Taking into account that only a week before the visit to Cuba the Moscow Patriarchate stated they were not ready to sign the Declaration, it could have been purely political necessity to withdraw attention from these [Munich] negotiations that caused such striking change in Orthodox party’s attitude.

Summarizing the discussion, the experts said that the meeting would most likely accelerate change in relations between Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, and the Declaration would become a ‘road map’ for their leaders. According to Fylypovych, the Declaration “defined the hot topics for all the churches as well as challenges people are facing”. The shown willingness to hold a dialogue will trigger discussion of theological discrepancies and problematic issues that divided religions both in the past and at present. At the same time, the Declaration “precedes the sentiments of Kirill’s subordinates”, said Father Balokh. Fylypovych believes the Patriarch risks sparking a serious conflict with conservative clergy. Russian theology is in for fundamental changes in the nearest future, as it faces the task to justify contacts with the Catholic Church. Vast interpretation of the Declaration gives hope to Catholics and Greek Catholics in Russia, as they will be able to refer to this document, fighting for their rights to practice their religion without restriction. It also gives the Ukrainian party a chance to demand practical adherence to the principle of non-intervention in the conflict from the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. Nevertheless, the experts believe the meeting will have minor influence on religious life in Ukraine, as it will be developing in accordance with the trends set during the years of independence. The only exception is the dialogue between the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate and the Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate and UGCC: here the situation can get off the ground, says Burega. “The positive role of Havana Declaration is in stirring the public sentiment, specifically in Ukraine […], it might awaken the All-Ukrainian Church Council, motioning it to surpass the Ukrainian level. It had to be represented in European structures long ago,” said Yeletskyi. Despite the fact the Declaration was intended “to cause separation and discord between Christians in Ukraine, it will indeed help them unite”.