By Philip Pullella
VATICANCITY – Pope Francis has said he has dropped plans to meet in June with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin who has backed Moscow’s war in Ukraine.
Francis, who has several times implicitly criticised Russia and Putin over the war, told Argentine newspaper La Nacion in an interview that he regretted that the plan had to be “suspended” because Vatican diplomats advised that such a meeting “could lend itself to much confusion at this moment”.
In Moscow, the RIA news agency quoted Metropolitan Hilarion, a senior Russian Orthodox Church official, as saying the meeting was postponed because “the events of the last two months” would have created many difficulties in its preparation.
Reuters reported on April 11 that the Vatican was considering extending the pope’s trip to Lebanon on June 12-13 by a day so that he could meet with Kirill on June 14 in Jerusalem.
Kirill, 75, has given his full-throated blessing for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine since it began on Feb. 24, a position that has splintered the worldwide Orthodox Church and unleashed an internal rebellion that theologians and academics say is unprecedented.
Francis, 85, has used terms such as unjustified aggression and invasion in his public comments on the war, and has lamented atrocities against civilians.
Asked in the interview why he has never named Russia or Putin specifically, Francis was quoted as saying: “A pope never names a head of state, much less a country, which is superior to its head of state”.
Putin, a member of the Russian Orthodox Church, has described Moscow’s actions as a “special military operation” in Ukraine aimed at demilitarising and “denazifying” the country. Moscow has denied targetting civilians
Francis has specifically rejected Russia’s terminology, calling it a war that has caused “rivers of blood”.
A Vatican source familiar with the planning for the Jerusalem stop said on Friday that it had been at an advanced stage, with even the location for the meeting with Kirill chosen.
It would have been only their second meeting. Their first, in Cuba in 2016, was the first between a pope and a leader of the Russian Orthodox Church since the Great Schism that split Christianity into Eastern and Western branches in 1054.
Francis said earlier this month that he was considering a trip to Kyiv, telling reporters on a flight to Malta on April 2 that it was “on the table”. He has been invited by Ukrainian political and religious leaders.
Asked in the Argentine interview why he has not yet made the trip, he said:
“I cannot do anything that would jeopardize higher objectives, which are an end to the war, a truce or at least a humanitarian corridor. What good would it do for the pope to go to Kyiv if the war continues the next day?”