Another take on their historic meeting from Chiesa, an excellent analysis.
Over the Embrace Between Francis and Kirill Falls the Shadow of Putin
In order to meet with the patriarch of Moscow, the pope has given support to Russia’s policies in Ukraine and in the Middle East, disappointing the expectations of the Christians of those regions. As he did before in Cuba
ROME, February 12, 2016 – The meeting with Russian patriarch Kirill at the Havana airport is a perfect snapshot of the geopolitics of Pope Francis. He dodges obstacles instead of confronting them. He puts the priority and urgency on person-to-person contact, as in a field hospital, where no one waits for the war to end first.
In Ukraine, in the Middle East, there is real war, and with Russia as lead actor. But for Francis the embrace with the patriarch of Moscow is worth more, as a sign of peace, than standing with the Catholic populations of those regions.
The case of Ukraine is exemplary. The Russian Orthodox Church has its birthplace there, but it also feels besieged by the millions of Eastern-rite faithful who have passed under obedience to Rome, the “uniates,” as they disparagingly call them. While in return the Byzantine-rite Catholics now see the Russian Orthodox as their enemy and invader.
So then, Francis has always done all he could not to annoy the patriarchate of Moscow and the imperial politics of Vladimir Putin, even at the cost of sowing the strongest disappointment among the bishops, clergy, and faithful of the Catholic Church in the region.
He has called “fratricidal war,” on both sides, a conflict that for Ukrainian Catholics is pure aggression on the part of Russia. And he readily agreed with Kirill’s proposal of a meeting neither in the East nor in the West, but in Cuba, defined as “neutral” ground.
Which in reality has nothing neutral or free about it. Where the prison population, in which political prisoners abound, “is among the most numerous in the world,” according to the latest estimates of the bishop of Pinar del Rio, who is responsible for their pastoral care. From which they continue to flee by the thousands, crossing Central American to the United States, unless they are stopped at the border of pro-Castro Nicaragua.
When pope Jorge Mario Bergoglio went to Cuba last September, he did not perform even one of the many gestures of “mercy” that he sows all over. Not one word for the thousands of refugees swallowed up by the sea. No request for the release of political prisoners. No show of kindness for their mothers, wives, sisters, arrested by the dozen during those same days.
We now know that the meeting with Kirill in Cuba was already on the agenda of both back then, as well as being on that of Raúl Castro and of Putin himself.
In the joint declaration signed by Francis and Kirill at the Havana airport, every theological dispute is set aside, while at the forefront is their shared suffering over the Christian victims, both Orthodox and Catholic, in Syria and in the whole Middle East.
Here as well the geopolitics of Francis excels more in passion than in rational calculation. There was a stir over the day of prayer and fasting proclaimed by the pope in September of 2013 to avert any Western military operation in Syria. Putin exulted over Barack Obama’s refusal to topple the Shiite regime in Damascus, and the Christian Churches in Syria breathed a sigh of relief as well, having in the despot Assad a self-interested protector.
But when the Islamic State then spread out with slaughter in its wake, and the bishops of Iraq and Kurdistan called for Western military intervention on the ground, Francis turned a deaf ear to them.
Today the Holy See’s position on the chessboard of the Middle East is not neutral, but decidedly biased. And it is all the more so since Putin, declining to strike the Islamic State, has reinforced his leadership role with the pro-Assad Shiite front, in what large segments of the Russian Orthodox Church are calling a “holy war.”