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Nov 25, 2013 | 16:22 GMT

6 mins read

Russia Mends Ties With the Vatican

Pope Francis exchanges gifts with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
(CLAUDIO PERI/AFP/Getty Images)

Russian President Vladimir Putin is attempting to promote himself as a global leader and make his country into an alternative to the United States. Due to domestic issues, Putin has traveled fairly little in 2013, though he's been abroad more frequently in the last month. He is currently at the Vatican to meet with Pope Francis — the first meeting between the two and the first between a pope and a Russian head of state since full diplomatic relations were restored between Russia and the Holy See in 2009. Russia and the Roman Catholic Church have had a tense and at times volatile history, though Moscow sees the church as a means to help spread Russian influence.

Previously one church, the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church split in 1054 when the patriarch of Constantinople was excommunicated from the Catholic Church and theological differences fractured the church. Heralded as the Great Schism (which is different from the schism between Catholicism and Protestantism), this event would create the separate Eastern (Orthodox) and Western (Catholic) churches. 

Eastern Orthodox Populations

Eastern Orthodox Populations

The Eastern Orthodox Church is divided by jurisdiction into regional churches, such as the Russian, Romanian, Bulgarian, Greek or Serbian Orthodox Church. Each regional church under the Eastern Orthodox faith has its own patriarch. Starting in the 15th century during the Ottoman rule of southeastern Europe, the Russian Orthodox Patriarchy in Moscow rose in importance, due to the fact that, unlike the other Orthodox churches, it was not under Ottoman rule. The Moscow Patriarchy called itself the "Third Rome," and Russia has since been the largest Orthodox country in the world.

The Evolution of Relations

Relations between Moscow and the Vatican turned political and worsened during the Cold War, when the Vatican condemned communism and the Soviet Union and even appointed a Polish pope, John Paul II, a vocal anti-Communist, in 1978. In return, Moscow accused the Vatican of infiltrating the Soviet bloc, especially in Poland, Hungary and Lithuania. When the Soviet Union fell, Pope John Paul II was credited with helping bring it down. Former Polish President Lech Walesa even said John Paul II gave the Polish people the courage to rise up.

Tensions between the churches remained after the collapse of the Soviet bloc. The Orthodox Church still alleges that there is Catholic infiltration in Russia, though the Catholic Church says its activities in the country are misunderstood. The Vatican says it only finances orphanages and children's programs. Former Russian Patriarch Alexy II called the Catholic Church's proselytizing efforts "poaching."

In 1997, then-President Boris Yeltsin introduced legislation that defined religion in Russia as Orthodox, Buddhism, Judaism or Islam. Any other faith was heavily restricted. In the ensuing years, the state and Russian nationalists attacked the buildings of other religions, including Catholicism, Mormonism and Methodist Protestantism, and many foreign parishioners, pastors and priests were expelled from the country. Even Russian nationals who were Catholic priests were denied visas to return home if they visited the Vatican.

Since Putin came to power, the Russian Orthodox Church has undergone a transformation, consolidating under the Moscow Patriarchy and growing in its power — both religious and political. While he was working to unite the Russian population in the early 2000s, Putin, who is devoutly Orthodox, used the church to spread pro-Kremlin messages, an effort that continues today.

Expanding Influence Through the Church

In 2007, the Russian Orthodox Church reunited with the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia after an 80-year break that cut all Russian Orthodox churches not on Russian territory from the Moscow Patriarchy. The reason for the reunification was for the Moscow Patriarchy to be able to influence the Orthodox parishioners abroad; there are approximately 400,000 such parishioners and 400 churches in places such as the United States and Europe.

Russia has also used the Russian Orthodox Church as a bridge in foreign policy between other Orthodox countries, such as fortifying links in Ukraine and Serbia. The Georgian Orthodox Church has also attempted to mediate in Russo-Georgian relations.

The goal of the Kremlin and the church is to have a mechanism to shape the perception of Russia at a time when the political environment in the region is shifting.

Relations between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church began to thaw in 2009. One reason was that the Russian Orthodox Church and the Kremlin felt consolidated in Russia, so the Catholic presence was no longer seen as a threat.

Another factor was that the Kremlin was willing to deal more closely with a pope who, unlike John Paul II, was not credited with bringing down the Soviet Union. In addition, Pope Francis' non-European background — he is from South America — could mean he will be more focused on other parts of the world rather than the Orthodox areas in southern, Central and Eastern Europe. This is important because Russia is currently attempting to increase its influence in these areas, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe.

The Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church want to spread their influence beyond the Orthodox in Europe, and forging a relationship with the Catholic Church is one potential way to do so. When Russia restored diplomatic relations with the Vatican in 2009, the Italian government started returning land to the Russian Orthodox Church that was previously used for churches and pilgrimage centers. Now the Russian Orthodox Church is renovating them to expand the church's presence in Italy, something that former Pope Benedict XVI blessed when the first returned church reopened near the Vatican.

The goal of the Kremlin and the church is to have a mechanism to shape the perception of Russia at a time when the political environment in the region is shifting. Over the past year, Russia has been attempting to show that it is not antagonistic toward Europe, forging friendly commercial deals and investing in struggling European states. In addition, Putin has been attempting to show that he is a global leader and that Moscow is an alternative to Washington. Having Pope Francis publicly endorse Russia's negotiations over the Syrian crisis, on top of building more social ties in Europe, supports this strategy. Thus Putin's latest trip to the Vatican fits into the continuing trend of Russia attempting to increase its influence abroad and trying to be a regional (and possible global) power.

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