What brings Rome and Moscow together at last? Suffering churches in Syria, Iraq (updated)

It is certainly the most important story of the day for the world's Eastern Orthodox Christians. Yes, even bigger than the announcement -- with the lengthy fast (no meat, no dairy) of Great Lent approaching -- that Ben & Jerry's is poised to begin selling vegan ice cream.

I am referring to the announcement of a meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill, the leader of the Orthodox Church in Russia.

Any meeting between the pope and the patriarch of all Russia would be historic, simply because the shepherds of Rome and Moscow have never met before. Hold that thought, because we will come back to it.

The big question, of course, is: Why are they meeting? What finally pushed the button to ease the tensions enough between these two churches for their leaders to meet?

In terms of the early news coverage, the answer depends on whether you are one of the few news consumers who will have a chance to read the Reuters report, being circulated by Religion News Service, or one of the many who see the Associated Press story that is, I believe, deeply flawed. Alas, the majority of news consumers will probably see a shortened version of the AP report and will be totally in the dark about the primary purpose of this historic meeting.

So here is the top of the Reuters report:

MOSCOW -- The patriarch of Russia’s Orthodox Church will take part in an historic first meeting with the Roman Catholic pontiff on Feb. 12 because of the need for a joint response to the persecution of Christians in the Middle East, the Orthodox Church said.
Senior Orthodox cleric Metropolitan Hilarion said that long-standing differences between the two churches remain, most notably a row over the status of the Uniate Church, in Ukraine. But he said these differences were being put aside so that Patriarch Kirill and Pope Francis could come together over persecution of Christians.
This issue will be the central item on the agenda for their meeting, in Havana, Cuba, the cleric said.

If you follow ecumenical news, you know that Metropolitan Hilarion is the point man for this work in Russia and previously met with Pope Benedict XVI (photo above) and later with Francis. Based on a joint press statement, it is clear that Francis and Kirill will sign some kind of joint statement of good will.

Their meeting will take place in Cuba, where the Pope will make a stop on his way to Mexico, and where the Patriarch will be on an official visit. It will include a personal conversation at Havana’s José Martí International Airport, and will conclude with the signing of a joint declaration.

In light of the horrible trends in the Middle East, a matter of great concern to Catholics and all the Orthodox churches, it sounds like some kind of specific statement on the persecution of Christians is in the works. It would be major news if the statement addresses religious freedom -- period.

So now, what did the AP report say was the goal of this meeting?

VATICAN CITY (AP) -- Pope Francis and the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church will meet in Cuba next week in a historic step to heal the 1,000-year-old schism that divided Christianity between East and West, both churches announced Friday.
The Feb. 12 meeting between Francis and Patriarch Kirill will be the first ever between the leaders of the Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Churches, which is the largest in Orthodoxy.

Well now, it is certainly true that any meeting between Rome and Moscow is a good sign on the ecumenical front and, thus, represents some progress toward healing the great schism of 1054. Some general expression of hope for unity may even make it into that joint declaration to be signed in Cuba.

But is that WHY this meeting is taking place? Is that the news?

Look at it this way. If you worked in the White House, wouldn't you think that the main thrust of this meeting will have something to do with what leaders in Moscow and Rome think needs to be done to protect the battered, bloodied churches of Syria and Iraq?

Now, way down, the AP report does mention this angle in some background material:

The two churches split during the Great Schism of 1054 and have remained estranged over a host of issues, including the primacy of the pope and Russian Orthodox accusations that the Catholic Church is poaching converts in former Soviet lands.
Those tensions have prevented previous popes from ever meeting with the Russian patriarch, even though the Vatican has long insisted that it was merely ministering to tiny Catholic communities in largely Orthodox lands.
The persecution of Christians -- Catholic and Orthodox -- in the Middle East and Africa, however, has had the effect of bringing the two churches closer together. Both the Vatican and the Orthodox Church have been outspoken in denouncing attacks on Christians and the destruction of Christian monuments, particularly in Syria.

There is another problem in that passage. It is certainly true that the 1054 schism was between "two churches." But that wording is, in this case, a bit confusing. The schism was not between Rome and Moscow. It was between the Catholic Church and all of the Orthodox churches, including the massive Russian church.

As the AP report notes:

The Vatican has long nurtured ties with the Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I, who is considered "first among equals" within the Orthodox Church. Starting with Pope Paul VI, various popes have called upon the Ecumenical Patriarch in hopes of bridging closer ties with the Orthodox faithful.
But the Russian Orthodox Church, which is the largest church in Orthodoxy and the most powerful, has always kept its distance from Rome. Joint theological commissions have met over the years and the Russian church's foreign minister has made periodic visits to Rome, but a pope-patriarch meeting has never been possible until now.

So we have come full circle, back to the crucial point that the Reuters team got into the lede and the AP team did not.

Why now? What world events made this historic meeting possible?

Behind closed doors, the pope and the patriarch will almost certainly talk about Ukraine and other issues. They may talk about the remaining doctrinal barriers that prevent shared Communion, in every sense of that word, between the Orthodox and Catholics.

But all signs are that they are meeting because, to be blunt, Christians have few if any safe havens right now in the lands in which they have lived and worshiped since the birth of Christianity. What happens if Damascus falls to ISIS or even to the American-backed "moderate" forces that have been killing and kidnapping Christians and members of other religious minorities at a slower rate than ISIS?

Stay tuned to see what is in the joint declaration in Cuba. I imagine that U.S. State Department leaders will be reading it carefully.

UPDATE: As one would expect, John L. Allen, Jr., of Crux has posted a lengthy and essential analysis of this development (with an heavy emphasis, of course, on the Catholic perspective). Where is the Iraq-Syria angle played? At the end, as the last card in a length drama leading to this news.

FIRST IMAGE: Pope Francis meets with Metropolitan Hilarion. The large image, as mentioned in text, is from an earlier meeting between Pope Benedict XVI and Hilarion.

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