Putin-Pope meeting may warm relations
25 November 2013
Russian President Vladimir Putin
VATICAN CITY-Russian President Vladimir Putin had an audience with Pope Francis Monday to discuss Syria and try to warm relations between the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches.
The encounter was the first meeting between Pope Francis and President Putin, who is the first Russian leader since 1917 to publicly profess a religious faith. They were joined by the Vatican Secretary of State, Pietro Parolin.
The two leaders will discuss many topics on foreign policy and the situation in Syria is expected to take precedence. In September, Pope Francis had written a letter to President Putin criticising his response to Syria. The letter stated that "one-sided interests have prevailed and in fact hindered the search for a solution that would have avoided the senseless massacre now unfolding."
The letter also condemned the G20 response, stating that the G20 "does not have international security as its principal purpose," and that "all governments have the moral duty to do everything possible to ensure humanitarian assistance." The Pope has also acknowledged that Russia's role in resolving the conflict is important and so the meeting between the two leaders can be crucial for achieving a solution.
The meeting is also expected to ease decades-long tensions between the Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church. During Soviet times, Joseph Stalin had taken property from the Catholic Church and given it to the Russian Orthodox Church. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, Eastern Rite Catholics took back many of the properties, which caused tension. Furthermore, Russian Orthodox officials had added to the controversy by charging that Catholics were trying to lure Russians away from the Orthodox faith.
However, relations over the past few years could be said to have been defrosting. When Pope Francis was first elected to the papacy, the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church wrote to him and suggested they work together to combat the persecution Christians face throughout the world. Monday's discussion is expected to feature a similar partnership. An aide to President Putin, Yuri Ushakov has said that during the meeting, "special attention will be devoted to the protection of the Christian heritage in North Africa and in the Middle East."
President Putin and Pope Francis will also discuss international institutions and the state of global initiatives. Mr Ushakov, has said that "Russia and the Holy See come out in favour of maintaining the priority of international-legal and moral principles in interstate contacts." He stated that the two will "compare notes on matters concerning a further coordination within the framework of international organisations."
After the meeting, President Putin will visit briefly with personal friend Silvio Berlusconi before he departs for the Italy-Russia summit in Trieste on Tuesday. Though some have speculated that President Putin might offer the "Cavaliere" a Russian passport to escape from his legal troubles, Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov has stated that such an offer is "pure fantasy." Last January, President Putin granted a Russian passport to actor Gerard Depardieu, who was battling tax issues in France.