ROME – On Tuesday, the Vatican announced that Pope Francis will travel to Kazakhstan in September for an international interfaith summit that is also expected to draw the participation of Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill.
The summit, hosted by the Kazak government and titled “Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions,” is set for Sept. 14-15, in the capital city of Nur-Sultan.
Pope Francis’s own participation, which has been rumored for weeks, was confirmed in a statement Tuesday marking the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Kazakhstan. The Russian Orthodox Patriarchate has said that Kirill would attend.
In their statement, the Vatican said “Kazakhstan shares the global vision of the Catholic Church based on the ideals of goodness, justice, solidarity and compassion,” and the Catholic Church itself “welcomes Kazakhstan’s role in fostering intercultural and interreligious dialogue.”
Both the Holy See and Kazakhstan, according to the statement, “agree that a culture of dialogue must be one of the basic values of the contemporary world. The continuation of peaceful coexistence in the face of contemporary challenges is achievable only through an inclusive and comprehensive dialogue.”
“Therefore, Kazakhstan welcomes the decision of Pope Francis to attend the VII Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, to be held in Nur-Sultan in September 2022,” it read, saying the pope’s participation was confirmed during an April 11 meeting between the pope and Kazak President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.
If both Francis and Kirill attend the summit as announced, it could give them a chance to meet, which would be significant given that the Vatican canceled a planned encounter between the two this month in Jerusalem due to the potential political fallout.
Ever since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, unleashing a violent war and prompting a mass displacement crisis with millions fleeing their homes, Kirill has been criticized in the international community first for his silence and then for his apparent support of the conflict.
Kirill has repeatedly criticized the West for its moral decline, saying in a March sermon the violation of “God’s law” in western secularism provided divine justification for the war, and cited Ukraine’s acceptance of gay rights and pride parades as examples of behavior at odds with God’s laws and teaching.
Vatican Secretary of State Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, in an interview with Italian newspaper La Stampa last month, rejected Kirill’s defense of the war on grounds of Christianity, saying the growth of secularism is worrying but “the way of countering this phenomenon on the part of Christians can never be violent.”
“Every war, as an act of aggression, is an action against human life and is therefore a sacrilegious act,” he said. “Consequently, no justification can be found in the word of God, which is always the word of life not of death.”
Pope Francis has repeatedly condemned the war and has issued numerous appeals for peace, but he has been careful to avoid naming Russia or Russian President Vladimir Putin as aggressors in the three-month conflict.
While top aides such as Parolin have condemned Kirill’s excuse of defending Christian morality as justification for the war, the pope himself has also refrained from making any direct public criticisms of Kirill and his statements in a bid to keep decades of ecumenical dialogue intact.
The closest he came to publicly chastising the Russian Orthodox patriarch was in an interview with Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera published May 3, when Francis said Kirill should not “turn himself into Putin’s altar boy.”
Francis said that when he and Kirill spoke on Zoom in mid-March, Kirill “spent the first 20 minutes holding a piece of paper reading all the reasons for the war.”
“I listened to him, and I told him, ‘I don’t know anything about this. Brother, we are not clerics of the state, we cannot use the language of politics, but of Jesus. We are shepherds of the same holy people of God. That is why we must seek the path of peace, to cease the blast of weapons,’” he said.
The Moscow Patriarchate immediately responded to the pope’s remarks: “Pope Francis chose an incorrect tone to convey the content of this conversation (with the patriarch); Such statements are unlikely to contribute to the establishment of a constructive dialogue between the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches, which is especially necessary at the present time.”
At the time, a second meeting between the two was being negotiated after their initial historic first meeting in Havana in 2016, which marked the first such encounter between a pope and Russian patriarch.
However, the meeting, tentatively scheduled to take place mid-June in Jerusalem, was called off by the Vatican because of potential diplomatic fallout given the controversy surrounding the Ukraine war and Kirill’s support of it.
Kirill has faced increased pressure from both the international community and from the Orthodox community itself over his position.
The European Union Monday announced a fresh package of sanctions against Russia which includes an embargo on most Russian oil imports, and which cited Kirill as being among its blacklisted individuals. However, the Hungarian government has objected to the Russian Church leader’s inclusion.
Earlier this week, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine-Moscow Patriarchate, which for years has been loyal to Kirill and the Russian Orthodox Church, adopted measures to sever ties with the Russian Orthodox Church over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The measures were adopted May 27, and announced on Facebook following a special council in Kyiv that focused on “issues that arose as a result of the military aggression of the Russian Federation against Ukraine.”
“We disagree with the position of Patriarch Kirill of Moscow … on the war in Ukraine,” the statement said.
If Pope Francis and Kirill do in fact attend the Kazak summit, it could provide them an opportunity to hold a conversation without the diplomatic headache caused by a formally scheduled meeting.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen