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Religion: Russian Orthodox Bishop Discusses Orthodox-Catholic Rapprochement

Patriarch Bartholomew I (left) welcomes Pope Benedict at the St. George Church in Istanbul on November 30 (epa) PRAGUE, November 30, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- As Pope Benedict XVI visits Turkey for dialogue with Orthodox Christian leaders, there is new attention being given to prospects for reconciliation between the two major branches of Christendom. RFE/RL correspondent Jeffrey Donovan spoke to Bishop Illarion Alfeyev, the Russian Orthodox Church's representative in Vienna to European institutions, about why the Catholic and Orthodox Christian churches want to move closer, and about what keeps them apart.

RFE/RL: The pope is in Istanbul at the invitation of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, who is often referred to as the "first among equals" of the Christian Orthodox world's leaders. The choice of Istanbul has great symbolic importance because it was in Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) that in 1054 the eastern and western parts of Christendom split in the "Great Schism" amid disputes over papal primacy and theological issues. Are you hopeful the current talks could lead to closer relations between the two main branches of Christianity?

Bishop Illarion:
One has to understand that if we have been divided for almost 10 centuries, finding a path to restoring complete unity, to removing all existing theological and ecclesiological problems, will be very difficult. Many years or even many centuries may be spent on this.

The question is this: if we cannot restore eucharistic union and we cannot be a single church, can we not at least learn to act as a single structure in our relations with the outside world? The challenges which face Christian churches today are challenges thrown out to all of Christian civilization.

RFE/RL: Is there much common ground for the two churches to build upon?

Illarion: As the guardians of Christian traditions and as churches that have a common position, in fact an identical position, on all fundamental moral questions of modern life, we should learn to act together. And precisely for this purpose it seems to me essential to create such an alliance or a strategic union to successfully accomplish this mission.

RFE/RL: To what extent does Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew speak for all Orthodox Christians?

The structure of the Orthodox Church is different from the structure of the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church has a single structure, headed by the pope. The Orthodox Church is a commonwealth of 15 independent, autocephalous churches -- each of which has its own patriarch or archbishop or metropolitan at its head. So the patriarch of Constantinople is in no way the head of the Orthodox Church, in the same sense that the pope is the head of the Catholic Church.

RFE/RL: Does this mean that the pope must conduct similar meetings with the heads of the autocephalous churches?

Illarion: Of course it is very important for the Roman Catholic Church to develop relations not only with the Patriarchate of Constantinople, but also with other Orthodox churches, including the Moscow Patriarchate, which has the most followers among the Orthodox churches. In terms of followers, it is the second-largest Christian church after the Roman Catholic Church.

RFE/RL: What do you feel are the prospects for the pope meeting with the Moscow patriarch?

Illarion: One needs to look at two separate issues: a meeting between the pope and the Moscow patriarch and the pope's visit to Russia. I think a meeting has to come first, and afterward, depending on the result of the meeting, an invitation could be issued for the pope to visit Russia. And I have the feeling the current pope and the current Moscow patriarch will meet.

RFE/RL: Would you speak for a few moments about tensions that might be resolved by such a meeting -- such as those over Orthodox Christian charges of Catholic proselytism in Russia?

Illarion: We are talking above all about the Eastern Rite churches, which remain a very serious problem. And we are talking about Catholic proselytism, which, as you mentioned correctly, the Catholic hierarchy now admits to.

The main issue here is that a meeting between the pope and the Moscow patriarch cannot simply be a protocol visit for the television cameras. It must be a meeting which helps to bring about a genuine breakthrough in our relations -- and if it does not resolve our current problems, then at least it should lead to a mapping out of a path for the common understanding of these problems and to their possible resolution.

RFE/RL: The pope has been much in the news recently for his speech in September, in which he quoted a Byzantine emperor as characterizing Islam as a violent religion. That elicited great anger in the Muslim world, anger that the pope's trip to Turkey is aimed at easing. How did you react to this speech?

Illarion: I have to tell you that the pope's speech in Regensburg did not only elicit negative reactions. For example, in the Orthodox churches and specifically in the Russian Orthodox Church, many expressed solidarity with the pope -- not so much in connection with his speech but because of the inappropriate reaction which followed.

RFE/RL: The pope has said he hopes to promote dialogue between Christians and Muslims. What form do you feel that dialogue should take?

Illarion: We cannot -- in order to accommodate political correctness and the fear of Islam which is characteristic for many European politicians -- we cannot, in order to accommodate these tendencies, sacrifice dialogue with Islam as one of the world's religions. I will try to clarify what I have in mind. When we are talking about dialogue between two religions, each of those religions must represent itself fully and authentically. We must not just say polite words to each other. But we must speak about problems. And among these, we must not silence history.

Pope Benedict XVI

Pope Benedict XVI

Pope Benedict conducts a Mass in Bavaria in September 2006 (AFP)

FIGHTING SECULARISM, EXTREMISM: On April 19, 2005, German-born Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church. Since becoming Pope Benedict XIV, the pope has labored to combat growing secularism in Europe and growing fundamentalist extremism in the Islamic world. His efforts have sometimes provoked controversy.


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