Rome meets Russia: Media bury role of persecution in historic summit (# LOL update)

Did you hear about the historic meeting that will occur today between the media superstar Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill, the leader of the Orthodox Church of Moscow and All Russia? Is there up-front coverage of this in your newspaper this morning?

The meeting is taking place in Havana for the expressed purpose of voicing support for persecuted Christians facing genocide in parts of the Middle East, primarily -- at the moment -- in Syria and Iraq. There is very little that Rome and Moscow agree on at the moment, when it comes to ecumenical matters, but Francis and Kirill are both very concerned about the persecution of Christians and other religious minorities in that devastated region.

Have you heard about this in major media?

If you are interested, this was the topic of this week's "Crossroads" podcast. Click here to tune that in. I also wrote about the background of this meeting in a previous GetReligion post ("The 'Passion' that looms over the historic Rome-Moscow meeting") and in this week's "On Religion" column for the Universal syndicate.

Now, call me naive, but I thought that this meeting would receive major coverage. This is, after all, the first ever meeting -- first as in it has never happened before in history -- between the leader of the pope of Rome and the patriarch of the world's largest branch of Eastern Orthodox Christianity.

Syria is also in the news, last time I checked. There is a possibility that Americans -- this is a nation that includes a few Christians who read newspapers -- might be interested in a statement by Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill on the massacre of Christians in Syria and elsewhere.

I guess I am naive. It appears that the meeting in Cuba today is not very important at all. I mean, look at the front of The New York Times website.

Oh, the pope is there on the front page. There is an advance story on his visit to Mexico.

Zero mention of the historic summit with Kirill.

Zero mention of the persecution of Christians and other religious minority groups in Syria and elsewhere. Just this, in a standard papal tour piece:

... the pope’s itinerary also poses a major risk to the government, highlighting at each turn some of the state’s most obvious challenges and failings -- poverty, inequality, corruption and rampant violence. The pope could even combine all these themes at once if he decides to meet with the families of 43 missing students, whose mysterious disappearance has become a byword for government incompetence and complicity with criminality.

But wait. There is a Syria story prominently displayed on the Times website. Maybe the Rome-Moscow meeting is covered in that piece?

MUNICH -- Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergey V. Lavrov, announced that they had agreed on the delivery over the next few days of desperately needed aid to besieged Syrian cities, to be followed by a “cessation of hostilities” within a week on the way to a more formal cease-fire.

Once again, there is zero news here on the Havana summit -- which centers on the slaughter in Syria and Iraq. There is zero news here on the persecution of Christians and other religious minorities in the region.

But wait, it appears -- hurrah for search programs -- that there is a Reuters wire story somewhere inside the Times about the Havana meeting. What does it say that the meeting is about?

HAVANA -- Pope Francis and the head of the Russian Orthodox Church meet in Havana on Friday, nearly 1,000 years after Eastern Orthodoxy split with Rome, for the first encounter in history between a Roman Catholic pope and a Russian Orthodox patriarch. The two religious leaders, guests of a Communist government, will address the millennium-long rift between the Western and Eastern branches of Christianity.
They are also expected to unite in an appeal for an end to persecution and killing of Christians in the Middle East.
The meeting will also carry political overtones, coming at a time of Russian disagreements with the West over Syria and Ukraine.

Over at The Washington Post, the approach is basically the same.

The key: No matter that the Catholic Church says and no matter what the Russian Orthodox Church says, this meeting is NOT really about religious persecution. This is really about politics -- alone. Thus, here is the lede of the Associated Press wire report inside the Post.

MOSCOW -- When Patriarch Kirill meets Pope Francis this week, the historic event will allow the head of the Russian Orthodox Church to assert Russia’s leading role in the Eastern Christian world. It may also allow Kirill, a skillful political player with close ties to President Vladimir Putin, to open a new avenue of communication for the Kremlin as it tries to escape Western isolation.

What is the conclusion that can be drawn from this?

Simply stated: According to elite media, religion does not play a significant role in the events unfolding in Syria. There is no need to take seriously the concerns of Christians and members of other minority religious groups (including more moderate forms of Islam) who are being crushed in between the monsters and their armies who are fighting for supremacy in this corner of the world.

No, this story is all about a clash between Putin and President Barack Obama. That is what really matters. There is no need to cover BOTH the religious and the political angles of this meeting.

The concerns of the pope and the patriarch? They are not all that important.

Want to see this in action, once again? Here is the top of the Reuters advance story for the Cuba meeting, which is being circulated by Religion News Service.

The headline? "Putin may benefit from meeting of Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill."

VATICAN CITY/MOSCOW (Reuters) -- A meeting between Pope Francis and Russia’s Orthodox Patriarch Kirill on Friday (Feb. 12) could not happen without a green light from President Vladimir Putin, diplomats and analysts say, and he may be one the beneficiaries.
In a landmark step towards healing the 1,000-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.

Buried down in the piece there is this:

Alexander Volkov, Russian church spokesman, said that while a joint declaration will dwell on the Middle East’s persecuted Christians, tensions between Russia and the West may be brought up in the talks.

So, once again, the actual cause and concerns that brought the two sides together are not all that important.

Oh well. Whatever. Nevermind.

If you are interested in the events and the history that led up to this historic meeting between Rome and the church of Moscow, then, well, enjoy the podcast.

UPDATE: The Miami Herald is apparently staffing this event and has filed a solid advance story on the summit. Here is the top of the story:

Pope Francis and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill will meet in Havana on Friday, the first rapprochement between the two churches in the nearly 1,000 years since Christianity split between East and West.

Despite a separation that dates back to the Great Schism of 1054, the Russian Orthodox Church has said that Islamic extremist attacks on Christian populations in the Middle East and North and Central Africa require urgent measures and closer cooperation between the Christian churches.

“In the present tragic situation, it is necessary to put aside international disagreements and unite efforts for saving Christianity in the regions where it is subjected to the most severe persecution,” Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk said in Moscow during a news conference on the patriarch’s trip.

The meetings will end late this afternoon, a traditional dead zone in the week for mainstream news. Still, the joint statement signed by Kirill and Francis will be released in multiple translations.

I will be traveling when this happens. I suggest looking to Whispers in the Loggia and Inside the Vatican for immediate links to the texts.

Informed reporters may want to check out this historical note from Rocco Palmo before writing their "healing the schism" ledes:

Before anything else, as no shortage of coverage elsewhere over the last week has shown a staggering depth of ignorance, one thing apparently bears clarifying: in the historic context of today's first-ever meeting between the Pope of Rome and the Patriarch of Moscow, any mention of "a 1,000 year-old split" would be enough to flunk the exam on what all this means.

To be sure, this afternoon's encounter in Cuba between Francis and Kirill I is a deeply significant moment, but its resonance lies far more on the geopolitical plane than a theological one. Even if religion and politics are often conflated and confused for each other these days, the distinction is critical – and as the historical sketch seems necessary, well, let's try to make it quick.

In essence, Christianity in modern-day Russia was barely at its inception at the time of the East-West Schism of 1054, when the mutual excommunications were levied between the Pope of Rome and the Patriarch of Constantinople – of course, the respective successors of the apostles Peter and Andrew. By contrast, the en masse baptism of the Kievan Rus (the precursors of the future empire, based in what's now Ukraine) took place less than seven decades earlier, in 988; a patriarchate at Moscow wasn't established until the late 1500s, and the rise of the Russian church as a major player beyond its borders roughly coincided with the empire-building which progressed from that period, culminating in Peter the Great's turn toward Europe a century later.

What is Palmo talking about? Check out this lede in The Daily Mail:

Pope Francis is heading to Cuba today looking to heal a 1,000-year-old rift in Christianity before embarking on a tour of Mexico.

Or maybe Palmo was talking about this howler in USA Today? This one needs a correction, pronto:

Despite famine, religious wars, worldwide conflict and the spread of civilization, the heads of the Roman Catholic and the Russian Orthodox churches haven't spoken since the Great Schism of 1054 shattered Christendom, so they have a lot of catching up to do at their historic meeting Friday in Cuba.


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