A meeting between Pope Francis and Russia’s Orthodox Patriarch Kirill on Friday could not happen without a green light from President Vladimir Putin, diplomats and analysts say.
In a landmark step towards healing the 1000-year-old rift between the Western and Eastern branches of Christianity, the two religious leaders will meet in Havana on the Pope’s way to Mexico.
“There is no doubt the Kremlin took part in making this decision,” said Gleb Pavlovsky, a political analyst and former Kremlin adviser in Moscow.
“Otherwise the meeting would not have happened.”
Putin has aligned himself closely with the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), making Friday’s two-hour private meeting not just a religious event but politically charged as well, especially when Russia is at odds with the West over Ukraine and Syria.
“Putin clearly sees the value of his relationship with the ROC and the ROC’s relationship with the pope,” said a diplomat who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
“He understands the pope is a big player on the world stage and I think that he would be happy about having the possibility of using the improved relations between the Vatican and the ROC to get the Kremlin’s view across to the Vatican.”
Relations between Moscow and the Vatican have improved steadily since the reign of Pope John Paul II, a Pole with a natural-born suspicion of Russia and who died in 2005.
Francis is an Argentinian with no historical baggage associated with the East-West divisions of Europe after World War Two.
The meeting, which will put another historic notch on Francis’ legacy, came after two years of secret contacts in Rome, Moscow and Havana, Vatican and diplomatic sources said.
The Russian Church had long accused Catholics of trying to convert people from Orthodoxy after the break-up of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.
The Vatican denied the charges and both sides say that issue has largely been resolved.
One sore point remains the fate of church properties that Soviet dictator Josef Stalin confiscated from Eastern Rite Catholics in Ukraine and gave to the Russian Orthodox there.
The division between the Eastern and Western churches is called the Great Schism, and is usually dated from 1054. That was the year, according to history, that Christianity split between the official religions of the Roman and Byzantine empires. Before that time, there was one branch of Christianity originating in Israel.
The Great Schism is not to confused with an identically-named period between 1378 and 1417 that marked an internal split within the Western church of Roman Catholicism.