An unexpectedly religious declaration from Havana could have important implications for the crises in Ukraine and in Syria. And it might even be used to solidify Russia’s arguments about the role of family values in a secularizing Europe.

Pope Francis, left, and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill sign a joint declaration on religious unity in Havana, Cuba, Friday, Feb. 12, 2016. Photo: AP

The Joint Declaration of Pope Francis and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, which was signed and released after their meeting Feb. 12 in Cuba, went beyond expectations in its scope and language. It even included issues, such as the church situation in Ukraine, which had previously been divisive and prevented the historic meeting of the heads of the world’s two biggest Christian bodies from happening.

Except for very detailed theological questions, which are discussed by a separate joint theological commission, there is hardly a theme in the broad agenda of relations between the two Churches that has not been addressed in the 30 points of the declaration in a unifying and inspiring language permeated with quotations from the Bible.

Ahead of the meeting in Havana’s international airport, which had been announced only a week in advance after at least two years of quiet negotiations, it was expected that the joint declaration would address the issue of the persecution of Christians in the Middle East, North and Central Africa – an urgent problem, which made the church leaders put aside their remaining differences and convene the meeting. It was also said by Church officials that Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill were likely to express a joint position on the need to defend traditional Christian values, first of all in the field of family, in the context of secularizing Europe and the rest of the Western world.

In other words, what was expected was a short, largely political declaration which would carefully circumvent both the problems that had divided the churches over centuries and new divisions that emerged in the past two decades. When the joint declaration was published (it was late night in Russia because of the time difference with Havana), a roar of reaction began on Russian social networks.

Many commentators noted that, instead of a political document, they got a Christian text. At the same time, people on the archconservative anti-ecumenical flank were critical – primarily of the meeting with the (by definition) “heretical” Pope rather than anything particular in the declaration.

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The text “is obviously less political and more Christian” than had been expected, prominent Ukrainian Orthodox theologian Archimandrite Kirill Govorun, who presently teaches in Stockholm, wrote in a comment on the Meduza website. In that capacity, it may be disliked by the promoters of “political Orthodoxy” – a reduction of Orthodox Christianity so that it suits the parameters of a certain national ideology, archconservatives, and people sharing the idea of a “holy war,” be it in Syria or in Eastern Ukraine, he wrote.

Announcing the meeting, the Moscow Patriarchate’s chief external relations official, Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, singled out the issue of “Unia” in Ukraine as an “unhealed blooding wound that prevents the full normalization of relations between the two churches.”

He meant the problems of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church – the former Orthodox dioceses, which in 1596 adopted Catholic dogma and shifted their allegiance to Rome while maintaining Byzantine rites. In 1946 the Soviet state took advantage of the limited grassroots movement for reunification with the Orthodox to subjugate the entire Church, which had become an important element of the Ukrainian national movement, to the Moscow Patriarchate. Then, at the turn of the 1980s and 1990s the Greek Catholics of Ukraine re-established their church in an often violent process that the Orthodox described as the destruction of their three dioceses in Western Ukraine. The Orthodox in Western Ukraine became a minority and over the past decades the Moscow Patriarchate always wanted a potential meeting with the Pope to yield a concession both on the perceived expansionism of the Greek Catholics to the East of Ukraine and on Vatican’s help in guaranteeing the rights of Orthodox in the country’s West.

Back in 1997, when the meeting of Pope John Paul II and Patriarch Alexy II was planned in Austria, it was called off by Moscow because the Vatican could not agree to the paragraph on the question of Unia in the draft declaration. Now, the declaration expresses hope that the meeting “may also contribute to reconciliation wherever tensions exist between Greek Catholics and Orthodox” and openly calls for it.

It states clearly, however, that “uniatism,” understood as the union of one community to the other, separating it from its Church, is not the way to re-establish unity.” At the same time, the existing historical Greek Catholic Churches “have the right to exist” and should seek to live in peace with their “neighbors.” “Orthodox and Greek Catholics are in need of reconciliation and of mutually acceptable forms of co-existence,” the declaration says.

Furthermore, the document did not only “deplore the hostility in Ukraine” but said that the leaders “invite Churches in Ukraine to work towards social harmony, to refrain from taking part in the confrontation and to not support any further development of the conflict.”

These paragraphs have already caused a “disappointment” on the part of the Greek Catholics of Ukraine. In the interview published on the official website of his Church, the Major Archbishop of Kiyv-Halych Sviatoslav Shevchuk acknowledged the recognition of his church’s right to exist, although said it is not supposed to ask anyone’s permission for that. Yet he viewed with suspicion the condemnation of “uniatism” which, according to Shevchuk, had been meant before as an attempt to restrict its rights.

As far as the paragraph regarding the hostilities in Ukraine are concerned, the leader of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church is critical because he did not see in the document a reflection of a widespread Ukrainian position blaming the ongoing conflict in the country entirely on Russia.

“The text has caused a deep disappointment among many members of our Church and concerned citizens of Ukraine. Many have addressed me and said that they feel betrayed by the Vatican, disappointed by a half-truth in the document and even an indirect support of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine by the Apostolic See. I understand these feelings. But I call upon our believers not to dramatize this Declaration and not exaggerate its importance for the church life,” he was quoted as saying.

Archpriest Maxim Kozlov, professor of comparative theology at the Moscow Theological Academy and deputy head of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Committee on Education told Russia Direct that the reaction of the Greek Catholic Church was not a coincidence. “The fact that “uniatism” has been clearly defined as an unacceptable way of attaining Christian unity appears to me to be of very significant value,” he said.

Why then did the Vatican make this statement now after refusing to make it for 20 years? “Pope Francis is far from having the same constraints of historical memory that Pope John Paul had, who was tied to his Polish origins,” Kozlov said. “On the other hand, the present degree of home-bred activity of the Greek Catholic Church of Ukraine does not make the Vatican happy,” he added.

According to Kozlov, the document covers all the issues of Orthodox-Catholic dialogue and does it “in a positive tone.”

The declaration emphasizes the first millennium of Christianity as the common foundation of the two Churches, but does not hide the differences that have accumulated since the Great Schism of 1054. “Mindful of the permanence of many obstacles, it is our hope that our meeting may contribute to the re-establishment of this unity willed by God, for which Christ prayed,” the text says.

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As had been expected, its central thrust is the situation in the Middle East and North Africa where “whole families, villages and cities of our brothers and sisters in Christ are being completely exterminated.” Yet the two church leaders do not only lift their voice in defense of Christians, calling upon the international community to act in order to prevent their further expulsion from their native lands, they also expressed their “compassion for the suffering by the faithful of other traditions,” which is supposed to mean primarily Muslims.

Apart from calls to prayers for peace and appeal to free the kidnapped Metropolitans of Aleppo, the document for the first time at such a high level cites the new Christian martyrdom of our days as yet another seed of Christian unity.

“We believe that these martyrs of our times, who belong to various Churches but who are united by their shared suffering, are a pledge of the unity of Christians,” the declaration says.

Another major element is the proclamation of traditional Christian values in the secularizing West. Not only is marriage re-emphasized as solely a union of man and woman and the common position is expressed on the right to life, but concern is expressed for “curtailment of the rights of Christians, if not their outright discrimination, when certain political forces, guided by an often very aggressive secularist ideology, seek to relegate them to the margins of public life.” The declaration calls for Europe “to remain faithful to its Christian roots” while remaining open to the contributions of other civilizations.

Most commentators have noted the language in which the declaration was written. “I was quite surprised by the level of wording of the document. The style and the beauty of language makes it sound if short of prophetic, then certainly different from the regular official inter-church documents which tend to sound like bureaucratese,” Archpriest Kozlov said.