Historic Meeting in Havana Brings About ‘Minor Breakthrough’ on Ukraine

The dangers facing Christian communities in the Middle East, Europe and Ukraine are given special prominence.

On February 12, the heads of the Roman Catholic and the Russian Orthodox churches met for the first time ever in Havana, Cuba, a traditionally Catholic country with strong ties to Russia. Nicolai Petro, Professor of political science at the University of Rhode Island, commented on the political significance of the two religious leaders’ historic meeting.

The Joint Declaration signed in Havana unites the efforts of the world’s two largest Christian communities, as humanity faces the trials ahead.

The dangers facing Christian communities in the Middle East, Europe and Ukraine are given special prominence. Since there were no disagreements between them on the first or the second, I will focus on Ukraine, where a minor breakthrough was achieved.

Of particular concern to the Russian Orthodox Church is the status of the Orthodox Church in Western Ukraine, where the re-establishment of the Greek Catholic (Uniate) Church in 1989 was accompanied by the violent seizure of Orthodox Church property and the destruction of three Orthodox diocese.

Addressing these tragic events, the two church leaders came up with a formula for reconciliation. While the Catholic Church deplores the “uniatism” of the past, “understood as the union of one community to the other, separating it from its Church,” the Russian Orthodox Church acknowledges that “the ecclesial communities which emerged in these historical circumstances have the right to exist and to undertake all that is necessary to meet the spiritual needs of their faithful.”

Secondly, referring to the hostilities in Ukraine, both communities are called upon “to refrain from taking part in the confrontation, and to not support any further development of the conflict.” This strikes me as a notable step toward the view of the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which is the only one that has refused to support the Ukrainian government’s “anti-terrorist operation” in Eastern Ukraine, deeming the conflict to be a fratricidal civil war.

Finally, while the Pope plays no formal role in the internal disputes within the Orthodox Church, he indicated his hope that the schism within the Orthodox church in Ukraine “may be overcome through existing canonical norms.” This phrasing clearly puts the Pope on the side of the recent Synaxis of the world’s Orthodox primates, held in Geneva (January 21-27, 2016), which did not invite the self-declared Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyivan Patriarchate to join in the historical Pan-Orthodox Church Council that will be held later this year.
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