MOSCOW (Reuters) - Strong conservative resistance could force the new head of the Russian Orthodox Church to move cautiously in thawing ties with the Vatican and distancing himself from the Kremlin.
Patriarch Kirill was enthroned on Sunday to lead the 160 million Orthodox believers, the world’s second largest Church, following the death of Alexiy II in December.
Pope Benedict has welcomed the appointment of Kirill, 62, who is seen as a modernizer and served for two decades as the de facto “foreign minister” of the Moscow patriarchate.
But although Kirill is regarded as a relative liberal in the highly conservative Church, he has also criticized “aggressive Western secularism” as well as Catholics allegedly seeking converts in Russia.
Such statements are intended to placate the conservative wing in the Orthodox Church and show Kirill is a pragmatist although he sometimes sends mixed messages, analysts say.
“He is a prominent politician and a big pragmatist who is very mindful of who he is talking to and what he needs to say,” said Antoine Niviere, professor at France’s Nancy University and an expert in the history of Russian Orthodoxy.
In his previous role handling relations with the Vatican, Kirill “must have done his best to make a meeting between Pope John Paul II and then Benedict with Alexiy impossible,” he said.
“Now, that he has become a patriarch, I believe such a meeting is possible. Because if you are the first patriarch who meets the Pope of Rome, your name will go down in history.”
Cardinal Walter Kasper, the Pope’s top envoy for Christian unity, said the topic of a meeting between the heads of the world’s two biggest churches did not come up at his first meeting with Patriarch Kirill on Monday.
“I think perhaps after one year we can speak about it but now first he (Kirill) has to take possession of his new ministry,” Kasper told Reuters in an interview.
Some experts say arranging a meeting with the Pope should not be top of Kirill’s agenda anyway.
“I personally believe that the world today needs much more a prominent patriarch, speaking at the U.N. about the world crisis rather than going to Rome to meet the Pope,” said Jean-Francois Colossimo, an Orthodox theologian and professor at Saint Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute in Paris.
“There is a lack of Orthodox leadership in the world.”
The Orthodox Church’s influence has grown in Russia since the collapse of communist rule nearly two decades ago, and it could play an important role now in moulding people’s response to hardship during Russia’s financial crisis.
Healing the rift with the Vatican would restore Christian unity after a nearly millennium of schism.
The Western and Eastern branches of Christianity split in 1054 amid disputes over doctrine and papal authority which have never been resolved. The Russian Orthodox is by far the biggest branch of Eastern Orthodoxy.
The main sticking point in recent dialogue between Moscow and Rome has been Russian Orthodox allegations that Catholics are poaching for converts among the Orthodox faithful, something the Vatican strongly denies. Alexiy II was cool toward Rome.
Alexiy also faced accusations of being too close to the Kremlin during his 18-year rule and dismissed allegations of cooperating with the KGB secret police, saying he made only compromises which were essential to save the Church.
Kirill may have big ambitions and a more independent streak than Alexiy, but analysts say he will be cautious about showing this in a country that lived through communist atheism and persecution of religion.
“It’s obvious that conservatives, who are categorically against modernization and dialogue with the Vatican, have become very active in the last few years,” said independent Russian political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky.
“It’s important for Kirill not to irk the Kremlin by demonstrating his political ambitions.”
Greeting Kirill at a Kremlin reception on Monday, President Dmitry Medvedev said ties between the state and Church were based on the non-interference of state bodies in the activity of religious organizations.
Kirill replied: “May the state take care of the earthly and the Church of the heavenly.”
Theologian Colossimo said he believes Kirill has a “very high idea” of the Church’s independence and responsibility, and a clear idea of the separation of powers.
“I think the Church will be more independent in relation to political power and closer to society and the daily problems of the people,” he said.
Writing by Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Timothy Heritage