It was a historic moment when Pope Francis met with Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, leader of the Russian Orthodox Church. The Roman Catholic Church has some 1.2 billion members and the Russian church some 150 million. Rome has strived to reach out to the Russian church since the fall of the Soviet Union. The encounter had geopolitical significance, writes Prince Michael of Liechtenstein.
The media reported widely on the religious leaders’ shared concern over the persecution of Christians in the Middle East. It is important to note, though, that neither the United States nor European governments have done much to protect Christians there. They have stood idly by as once-flourishing churches perished and a tragic extermination of Christians was put into motion.
Also widely reported was the criticism of the Patriarch, for his close ties with the Kremlin and his alleged financial enrichment. The political connection issue is relevant; the enrichment charge, however, remains unsubstantiated. Oddly missing in the coverage was another point that the Pope and the Patriarch emphasized in their joint declaration.
They expressed deep concern that in many countries – not only war zones – Christians suffer from increasing restrictions on their right to live according to their religious convictions. Many modern political forces, guided by an often aggressive secularist ideology, seek to relegate Christians to the margins of public life. This easily may lead to outright discrimination. In the context of the declaration, it appears that there was specific for the developments in Europe.
Hence the importance of the religious leaders’ declaration. It was a Christian tradition that created a foundation for religious freedom, which allowed secular states to emerge. They can be successful, but only as long as secularism does not become ideologically anti-religious.
During the Cold War, the atheist Soviet bloc plotted to convert the world in to a radical communist system. Christianity was an enemy, as it has been for many other totalitarian systems, such as the Nazis and the Chinese and North Korean Communists. The U.S. and its European allies, although secular as states, were set in their Christian tradition. Their Christian values led them to oppose the inhumane Soviet system. The Vatican closely supported these efforts.
The “founding fathers” of the institutions that finally became the European Union were all Christians, believers in the ideals of freedom and peace. Their great work, based on humanist and Christian principles, proved successful. However, times have changed.
The Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination Against Christians, an NGO registered in Austria, highlights alarming tendencies in Europe and the West in general. The Christians’ understanding of the human person, faith and morality, is ridiculed and rejected. Their freedom of conscience is limited, which is particularly pertinent to medical personnel and Christian teachers and judges. Under pressure is parents’ right to demand that their children’s education is consistent with their religious and philosophical convictions. Christian symbols are removed from public places, Christians are negatively stereotyped in the media, suffer from discrimination and hate crimes.
Sadly, this is now true about a number of European countries. The anti-religious attitude is rising.
As opposed to western Europe, Russia shows pride in its Christian roots. The importance of the Pope’s and the Patriarch’s joint statement cannot be overestimated.
The geopolitical significance of this is twofold. The West’s shedding of its Christian identity allows someone else – Russian President Vladimir Putin – to assume the mantle of a global protector of Christianity and Christian principles. Deprived of these values, the Western civilization, especially Europe, also loses the core component of its identity. History teaches us that cultures without identity do not last long.