For me, the text of the Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill’s joint declaration came as a surprise, as did their meeting and its location in Havana. This document is significantly better in style and content than any earlier official document or statement from the Russian Orthodox Church. Simply put, the text is less political and more Christian.
What first catches the eye is the stress on Christian unity. It is presented in the text both traditionally—through references to the first millennium—and in an innovative way—through references to the martyrs of our time. Although they are primarily Coptic, Syrian, and Ethiopian Christians and so belong to different traditions than those represented by the Pope and the Patriarch, these martyrs are seen by Francis and Kirill as witnesses to Orthodox and Catholic unity.
The Declaration devotes a great deal of space to the Middle East. Many previous statements on the subject issued by the Russian Church referred exclusively to the problems of the Christian community in the region, and in fact created a pretext for military intervention. In reality, the military intervention of Russia, under the pretext of protecting the Christians, only exacerbated their plight in the region. In Sweden, where I teach, many of my students are Christian refugees from Syria and Iraq. They strongly oppose the military actions of Russia that are supposedly in the name of their interests. In fact, the Declaration recognizes this reality and sees the only alternative to violence not a new war, but a cessation of hostilities. It also speaks about the suffering of all war victims, including Muslims.
The Declaration presents the situation in Ukraine in a similar light. It is amazing that nowhere in the text is there the usual propagandistic description of a “civil war” in Ukraine. Even the Pope in the past was not careful enough to avoid calling the war in Ukraine “fratricide,” a term that minimizes the fact of Russian aggression. Now he does not use these euphemisms.
In connection with these paragraphs on Ukraine, one is reminded of a similar declaration signed by Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople on the results of their meeting in November 2014. Then, too, “the parties involved” in the conflict were urged to take “the path of dialogue.” It is significant that that Declaration called to respect international law, which was an implicit condemnation of the illegal annexation of Crimea. The Havana Declaration does not contain any reference to Crimea, but it is quite new for a statement signed by the Russian Patriarch to acknowledge that Ukrainian Greek Catholics can exist. The Declaration also calls the Orthodox to live in peace with them. Still, the first reaction of the Greek-Catholic community and wider public in Ukraine to the Declaration is one of disappointment. Many have complained that it has not named the perpetrator of the war in Ukraine. As the former political prisoner and now vice-rector of the Ukrainian Catholic University Myroslav Marynovych wrote, “The Pope had an opportunity to advocate the interests of the victims of the Russian aggression . . . but did not use it.”
Indeed, the Declaration is not completely free of political import. It stresses the polarization between rich and poor, religious and secular countries. Also it contrasts Russia, with its “unprecedented renewal of the Christian faith,” to Ukraine, where the society is thrown to “a deep economic and humanitarian crisis.” However, each side sees this polarization in their own way. For Pope Francis it is obviously the opposition between the global South and the global North. For Patriarch Kirill, it is between the global East, with Russia in its center, and the global West. Also, the declaration emphasizes collective rights, while largely ignoring individual rights.
Despite this, because the Declaration is less political and more Christian, it will disappoint the “political orthodox,” the Orthodox fundamentalists who oppose even a hint of contact with Christians of other denominations. It will also disappoint the Orthodox Stalinists who seek in the Church an alternative to Soviet ideology, as well as those who support a so-called “Russian Spring” in Crimea and Donbas and holy wars in the Middle East. They need to hear the call of the Declaration: “Attempts to justify criminal acts with religious slogans are altogether unacceptable.” However, to read the text in this way, one has to look at it not through the eyes of propagandistic channels like Russia Today. The Declaration is drafted to fit two narratives: the one with Russia the aggressor and the other with Russia the protector of Christian values. If one understands the war in Ukraine and in the Middle East not as it is explained by Russian television, but as it is understood by the overwhelming majority of the international community, then the call by the two Primates to stop fueling the war is directed in the first place at the Kremlin. Whether the Kremlin will hear it that way is another matter.
Cyril Hovorun is a research fellow at Yale University. He served as chairman of the department for external relations of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and first deputy chairman of the educational committee of the Moscow Patriarchate. He is a scholar in patristics and ecclesiology.