06/10/2015, 00.00
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Ukraine and the Middle East focus of Putin’s second visit to Pope

by Marta Allevato
The Russian leader returns to Vatican after two years; the Syrian crisis overtaken by Ukraine, Pope viewed by Moscow continues as a significant interlocutor in context of exacerbated tensions with the West. The defense of persecuted Christians around the world Federation’s weapon of "soft power".

Moscow (AsiaNews) - The Ukrainian crisis on the one hand and on the other the defense of Christians in the Middle East will be the central themes discussions today between  Pope Francis and Russian President Vladimir Putin in their second meeting in two years.

The stop at the Vatican was originally not part of the Russian leader's scheduled visit to Italy for the Expo in Milan: Initially, Putin was to travel to Turin to visit the exhibition of the Shroud, according to diplomatic sources in Russia. The Rome stopover has taken shape in recent weeks and at the specific request of Moscow, according to the same sources.

Ukraine crisis and relations between Moscow and the West

The first is a purely political issue (moreover, according to the protocol today’s bilateral meeting is a "meeting of Heads of State"), which includes not only the West's relationship with Moscow (the Vatican aims avoid deepening tensions and a possible new cold war, reinforced by the harsh conclusions of the recent G7), but also the situation of the Greek-catholic community.

As it was for Syria, the last meeting between the two leaders November 25, 2013, the Pope will attempt to take on the role of peacemaker (at the request of Russian rabbis), aware that the war in Ukraine is also creating deep religious divides among the nation’s varied and complex Christian community.

"If the Pope shows interest, I have no doubt that the president will be ready to clarify Russia's position in detail " on Ukraine, said Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov. Both the Kremlin and Moscow Patriarchate have repeatedly and publicly appreciated the "balanced" line of the Holy See in the crisis in the former Soviet republic, where the Pope has never pointed the finger at Russia and never spoke of aggression, unlike the Greek-catholic communities (Catholics of the Orthodox rite also called 'Uniate', because in communion with the Pope and in contrast with the Russian Orthodox Church which accuses them of leading the anti-Russian cause). The president of the Synod of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church, the major archbishop of Kiev Sviatoslav Shevchuk, sent the Vatican a letter requesting the Holy Father, in his meeting with Putin, "to be the voice of the Ukrainian people, his children, and all Catholic believers suffering in Ukraine ", but so far the Pope has doggedly maintained the line that the crisis is a " fratricidal war among Christians".

Christians in Middle East

Significantly, commenting on Pope Francis’ latest audience with Putin, the secretary general of the Catholic Bishops 'Conference in Russia, Father Igor Kovalevsky, emphasized the' "importance" that the two leaders place on the issue of persecuted Christians in the Middle East.

For years, this issue has seen a close cooperation between the diplomacy of the Kremlin, the Moscow Patriarchate and the Holy See.  It is one of the few areas in which the two sister Churches find common ground, while theological dialogue has remained slow. In a press conference, Kovalevsky spoke of "dramatic and critical situation. The true martyrs in the twenty-first century are emerging, just as in the days of paganism in the Roman Empire”.

The discourse on Christians in the Middle East and those persecuted, in general, the world is primarily a sincere and concrete need that arises from the Church, but which Moscow has taken on as part of its strategy to pursue strategic and political interests in regions where it wants to regain weight and influence. This is fostered by Russia’s increasing extroversion, shared by the Patriarchate thanks to a special "synergy of personalities" between the Kremlin leader and Kirill, both projected onto the world scene.

The common goal of the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church appears the desire to reshape the international perception of Russia, show that Putin is a global leader and that Moscow can be a viable alternative to Washington at a time when the West is in a "decadent" phase. As part of this strategy, building good relations with the Catholic Church is a way, for both institutions, to extend their influence.

The defense of Christians is at the same time, according to some analysts, one of the major elements of "soft power" in the Kremlin's foreign policy strategy today. Russia still perceives itself as an empire and the qualifying traits of such an empire is the idea that it does not exist for itself, but to play a historical, universal role.

Russia has always had difficulties in the past 20 years in ideologically justifying their foreign policy choices. It had no "soft power". The Americans claimed to "export democracy" and Moscow countered with "defending our sphere of influence": two categories that are not very competitive even in the media.

The Holy See knows the vital importance of Russia on international issues, in general, and those in the Middle East, in particular, and is interested in maintaining open and active dialogue. The former Apostolic Nuncio to the Russian Federation, Antonio Mennini, reflecting recently of the Vatican’s 'foreign policy' noted that the Holy See "does not consider Russian imperialism more dangerous than Western". This is exactly what Putin has constantly tried to point out (and with him Patriarch Kirill), and he has reiterated the dangers of militarism even in his recent interview to an Italian newspaper, Corriere della Sera, which preceded his visit to Italy by a few days.

No breakthrough is expected instead on the question of possible papal visit to Russia. The presidential adviser Yuri Ushakov stressed that this is an issue that also involves the Orthodox Church. This for its part said that the issue remains on the agenda, "but the exact date of its possible occurrence is not indicated, given the need for a preliminary assessment of some complex issues in relations between the two Churches."

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