A new meeting between Pope Francis and Kirill in Belarus
by Vladimir Rozanskij

Francis is travelling to the Baltics in late September; Kirill will be Belarus in mid-October. In power for almost 25 years, Belorussian President Lukashenko would be quite happy to see a meeting take place. The nunciature and the patriarchate are working at it. Belarus has an ecumenical vocation. A new concordat giving Catholics the same rights as the Orthodox is close at hands.

Moscow (AsiaNews) – Belarus could be the setting for another meeting between Pope Francis and the Patriarch of Moscow Kirill (Gundyayev). Although the country might be less exotic and far away than Havana, Cuba, where the two religious leaders met for the first time on 12 February 2016, it could nevertheless see their paths cross next autumn, as they did during their visits to the Americas, since Francis plans to travel to the Baltics (22-25 September) whilst Kirill will be in Belarus on 13 October.

Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, Archbishop of Minsk, spoke a few months ago about a possible visit by the pope in Belarus when he welcomed the presidents of the Council of the Bishops' Conferences of Europe (CCEE) who met in late September in the Belarusian capital for their annual plenary session. On that occasion, the country's president, Aleksandr Lukashenko, had expressed his support for a papal visit, and perhaps even a new meeting between the pope and the patriarch of Moscow. In Minsk, Russia and Ukraine signed the only agreements about their ongoing conflicts. This has at least lessened the level of fighting, with the conflict now referred to as "low intensity" or "hybrid" war. Belarus, also known as White Russia, has always been a place of mediation between the other two Eastern Slavic countries, Greater Russia and Little Russia (Ukraine). Lukashenko has been in power since 1994, following the fall of Communism, five years before Putin himself became president. His "subjects" call him batka, "godfather", and he won’t dislike marking a quarter century in power with a great initiative of peace between peoples and religions.

Reports about a possible autumn visit by Kirill have revived the suggestive idea of a meeting between the two religious leaders in a country where Catholics and Orthodox live side by side and support each other in a much more positive way than elsewhere. In fact, Belarus is an offspring of the history of Latin Poland and Byzantine Russia. Today still, out of almost 10 million inhabitants, the Catholic minority numbers almost 3 million. The capital Minsk, a metropolis of 3 million people, is one of the most "mixed" places for the two main Christian denominations. The Metropolitan of Minsk, Pavel (Ponomaryov), the Exarch of the Belarusian Orthodox Church in communion with Moscow, also expressed his interest in a papal visit. In a show of humility, he said, "Concerning a visit by the pontiff to Belarus, it is a question that must be assessed by the head of the Russian Orthodox Church and that of the Catholic Church. It is not an matter at our echelon, nor at the level of inter-confessional relations, but is eminently a Church-to-Church issue. As soon as the Pope of Rome discusses a possible visit with the patriarch, they will let us know at what level we must place ourselves."

The Vatican nuncio in Belarus, Archbishop Gabor Pinter of Hungary, told the press that Pope Francis has an "exceptionally positive" view of a possible visit to the country, but there are no precise dates nor plans at the moment. However, the diplomat pointed out that "intense work is currently underway so that this event could take place in the near future", perhaps around the time of the pope’s visit to the Baltic nations of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia next September.

The pope's visit could even celebrate a "concordat" between the Catholic Church and the Republic of Belarus, which is currently being discussed by the two sides. Local Catholics want the same rights as the Orthodox Church, whose official pact with the State is a model for the one now being negotiated. The latter would recognise the historical role of Catholicism in the development of the culture and traditions of the country, historically on the border between East and West. In addition to acknowledging the right to organise and set up their own Church institutions, Catholics would be given complete freedom to engage in social, educational and charitable activities at every level, in harmony with the Orthodox. In short, Belarus could serve as a model for ecumenical relations, especially in a region that has always been traversed by deep tensions and ethnic-religious conflicts.