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The Pope the Patriarch and Putin
Israel - Middle East
Friday, February 19, 2016
Alf Cengia

Historically there are understood to have been three major rifts in the church. The first one was in 1054 AD which involved Christianity splitting into two divisions: Eastern (Constantinople) and Western (Rome). It is referred to as "The Great Schism." The second rift was the splitting away from the Catholic Church during the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s.

The Great Schism of 1054 was driven by a range of issues. Among these includes a cultural divide over things like languages (Latin v Greek), baptism, celibacy, the calculation of Easter, whether priests should grow beards or not and the alleged worship of Icons, etc.

There was a major theological debate regarding the Trinity and the Holy Spirit. The Western Church taught that the Holy Spirit is sent by both Father and Son; whereas the Eastern Church insisted the Holy Spirit is sent only by the Father through the Son.

There were also disputes over the pope's claimed infallibility, the structure of patriarchal authority and, of course, politics. Western and Eastern branches of the church were typically involved in the politics of the times. Nothing much has changed.

Dialogue between the Eastern Orthodox Church and Rome began some 50 years ago (in 1964) when:

"...Pope Paul VI and Greek Patriarch Athenagoras met in Jerusalem. The next year, in simultaneous ceremonies, the two men undid the excommunications of 1054 that had set the schism in motion."

Now, fifty years later, politics and conflict (Syria, ISIS and Christian genocide etc) have been catalysts for a further meeting. This time it was between Rome's Pope Francis and Eastern Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Russia, which took place at Cuba's international airport.

In 2013 Pope Francis met with Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople and members of the Eastern Orthodox Church in a gesture of reconciliation. But the Russia Orthodox Church branch resisted the overture then. This is why some pundits see this meeting between the pope and the Russian patriarch as historically significant. Following their two-hour airport interlude, a joint statement was issued:

"The Holy See and the Moscow Patriarchate hope that it will also be a sign of hope for all people of good will...They invite all Christians to pray fervently for God to bless this meeting, that it may bear good fruits."

While most see the pope's efforts as part of his peace-making reconciliatory nature, others also recognize his Jesuit side; and, of course, the politics. Francesco Sisci notes the historical roots of what Pope Francis is doing. He cites the Middle East conflicts and the "confrontational" policies and failures of the US and its allies in working with Russia and China.

Sisci believes Pope Francis sees a global leadership vacuum. He notes that the church: "spoke for peace in the run up to World Wars I and II." The pope wants to move the Holy See back into the limelight and the church back into the world prominence it enjoyed during the Renaissance.  Sisci writes that:

"His [Pope Francis'] forward-looking energy resembles that of the Jesuits in 16th century, the Franciscans in the 13th century - or Paul in the 1st century. Those periods also mirror present times. Five centuries ago, Rome was under siege by the Protestants in the north and the Muslims in the south and east. The Jesuits, in response, moved eastwards. It echoed the search during the Middle Ages for Prester John, a fabled, but mythical Christian king of Asia."

It's notable that Sisci mentions the run ups to World Wars I and II. As of writing there are murmurings that Saudi Arabia is siding with Turkey and entering the Syrian conflict. Given Russia's deep commitment to Syria and Iran one must wonder how it will respond and what this will mean for the region?

There are those who believe that - in meeting with the patriarch - the pope has made a diplomatic concession to Putin. One columnist notes that Putin "has come as close as no Russian ruler since the czars to making Orthodox Christianity the state religion" and wanted the meeting to take place. Alexander Baunov of the Moscow Carnegie Center is cited as saying:

“Putin needs a meeting between the Pope and the Patriarch more than ever before. The political West is openly hostile toward Russia and toward him personally. It’s all the more important to show that the traditional, religious West is not as hostile. There are two specific issues on which this lack of hostility was especially important to demonstrate: Ukraine and Syria. Given the Pope’s dovishness, Russia’s tough military action in both countries would seem to be a hard sell. Amazingly, in the joint declaration signed after the Havana meeting, Pope Francis appeared to have gone along with the Russian patriarch’s views."

Ana Nemtsova (The Daily Beast) believes the Kremlin enlisted the Russian patriarch in order to bring the pope on side, for similar reasons which Francesco Sisci cites. She raises some points worth noting. Among them (and most ominously) there's the chatter of the possibility of a Third World War. Nemtsova writes:

'...momentous as the meeting may appear in ecclesiastical terms, much of the impetus for it was purely political at a moment of dangerous confrontations and delicate diplomacy between Russia and the West. As some influential voices in Moscow have started talking about the risk of a Third World War, the pope and the patriarch spoke of the need to protect "the future of human civilization."' (Emphasis mine)

One Russian analyst even claims that colleagues have been burying canned foods in their gardens in preparation for the "black day" when war begins. Escalating events do suggest we are witnessing a run up to another World War.

Church leaders concerned about peace will work towards promoting it. But it seems to me that the Vatican and the Eastern Orthodox Church are being drawn (read used) into political intrigues and relationships which they were never biblically meant to be involved in (see the Great Commission Matthew 28:19-20). Protestant churches have fallen into these same traps.

If history is an indication, the pope and the patriarch's involvement won't contribute any meaningful outcome. In two thousand years the church hasn't been able to broker permanent peace, nor usher in anything like the kingdom of God as described in Scripture. In fact the world has descended further into godlessness.

The dynamics driving the Middle East conflicts are Islamic and resistant to any peace overtures, let alone papal. Its tentacles have reached a West in denial. These dynamics also involve historical and irrational hostilities against Israel and the Jews.

It is significant that many are concerned about another World War and that the major part of the conflict is located in the Middle East. It is also noteworthy that modern Israel is at the center of the conflict and that it has been demonized by churches, individuals, organizations and other nations.

And it's no coincidence.

Behold, I will make Jerusalem a cup of drunkenness to all the surrounding peoples, when they lay siege against Judah and Jerusalem. And it shall happen in that day that I will make Jerusalem a very heavy stone for all peoples; all who would heave it away will surely be cut in pieces, though all nations of the earth are gathered against it. Zechariah 12:2-3

Time is running out.

Let's pay attention and keep looking up.

About Alf Cengia

Last week: Israel Politics and Dispensationalism



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