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Pope-Putin visit: Is church détente in the works?

President Vladimir Putin’s Nov. 25 meeting with Pope Francis was the third  to the Holy See by a Russian leader since the two sides established full diplomatic relations in 2009. Kissing religious icons aside, the visit had other noteworthy elements in the context of relations between the Kremlin, the Vatican and their faithful followers. Earlier this year, Pope Francis lent a loud voice of moral opprobrium over the push by the US to punish Syria for the use of chemical weapons against civilians— something Moscow, a Syrian ally, openly welcomed.

What didn’t happen during Putin’s visit, however, is more significant. The Russian leader did not invite the papal leader to visit. In fact, no pope has ever visited Russia, either before the Soviet Union or after its collapse. The highest-ranking Vatican official ever to visit Moscow came in 1896 when a cardinal led a delegation to the coronation of Tsar Nicholas II. John Paul II died in 2005 having tried in vain to visit Russia.

Why the snub? A millennium-long theological schism, lingering political distrust, and the Kremlin’s embrace of an increasingly powerful Orthodox Church. Stalin famously dismissed the Vatican’s might. “The Pope! How many divisions has he got?” he was quoted by Winston Churchill as saying. Putin may not be quite as cocky when it comes to handling relations with Rome. 

Here’s a deeper look at what underlies the bad blood:

Pope Francis (r.) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (l.) share a private audience at the Vatican, Nov. 25. Putin didn't invite Francis for a return visit.
Claudio Peri/Pool/AP
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1. Fears of Convert Poaching

The Orthodox and Roman Catholics went their separate ways in 1054, a historic event known as Great Schism. During the Middle Ages, the Orthodox Church viewed itself as the protector of Christianity, and the heir to Rome. Today, it is the largest Christian denomination in Russia, with an estimated 150 million adherents, active or passive, worldwide. By comparison, there are around 780,000 Catholics in Russia, according to the World Christian Database.  Still, the Orthodox Church fears that a greater presence for Catholics in Russia will result in Catholics converting (i.e. poaching) people the Orthodox claims as their own.  The growth of Protestant churches, as well as evangelical and Pentecostal denominations, has also been worrisome to the Russian church, and prompted restrictions and regulations in recent years.


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