A visit by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomeos I of Constantinople to Moscow underscores a thawing in relations after decades of tension during the Soviet era and post-Soviet geopolitical turmoil - writes Sophia Kishkovsky.
Bartholomeos arrived in Russia on 22 May 2010 and took part in a service the following day - Pentecost Sunday - with Patriarch Kirill I of the Russian Orthodox Church at the centuries-old Holy Trinity St Sergius Lavra church near Moscow.
They will concelebrate again on Monday 24 May at Christ the Saviour Cathedral opposite the Kremlin in the Russian capital, and then hold talks the next day at Kirill's residence outside Moscow.
The Russian Orthodox Church is the world's largest Orthodox church. The Ecumenical Patriarchate is regarded as being the most important symbolically, but Moscow has chafed when the Istanbul-based Patriarch of Constantinople is described as an Orthodox equivalent of a Roman Catholic pope.
Andrei Zubov, a historian and director of a centre for the study of the church and international relations at MGIMO, the Russian foreign ministry's university, told ENInews that Patriarch Kirill is working to overcome the legacy of the Soviet past inherited by the Russian church.
"Patriarch Kirill came to his throne, to his position, with the idea of sharply improving relations both with Constantinople and with Rome, and he is very active in these two directions," said Zubov in a 21 May interview.
Kirill, who was enthroned as Patriarch in February 2009, visited Bartholomeos and the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul in July. There the two patriarchs spoke of the need to cast differences aside and present a united Orthodox front against secular evils.
The visit by Bartholomeos to Moscow comes after a mission to the Vatican by Metropolitan Hilarion, Kirill's successor as chairperson of the Moscow Patriarchate's Department of External Church Relations. Hilarion is also a composer and his visit included a 20 May performance of a symphony by him called "A Song of Ascent", attended by Pope Benedict XVI.
While in Rome, Hilarion said that it is his goal for Patriarch Kirill and Pope Benedict to meet.
Attempts to organise a meeting between Pope John Paul II and Kirill's predecessor, Patriarch Alexei II, failed. Relations between the two churches in the 1990s were marred by disputes over Ukraine and about Russian charges that Catholics were proselytising - seeking converts - in Russia, something denied by the Catholic Church.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, intra-Orthodox conflicts over jurisdictional allegiance have flared in Estonia and Ukraine as some Orthodox groups sought to break free of Moscow as their countries gained independence. Similar issues have arisen in other European countries in recent years, with an influx of Russians leading to divided parishes and property disputes. Some of those disenchanted have turned to the Ecumenical Patriarchate as a refuge against the Moscow Patriarchate's growing strength.
Moscow and Constantinople also have a longstanding dispute over Moscow's authority to grant autocephaly, or self-governing status, to the Orthodox Church in America in 1970.
"Bad relations with Constantinople and bad relations with Rome were a mandatory condition of Soviet church ideology," said Zubov, the Moscow historian and analyst. "The Moscow Patriarchate was restored in its day by Stalin in 1943 with the goal of counteracting the Vatican and Constantinople as centres of Christianity not controlled by the Soviet regime."
The Russian church was influenced for decades by this way of thinking, he said.
"Two generations of Russian bishops and Russian theologians were raised with this psychological heritage," Zubov stated. "So what is happening now is namely the overcoming of the Soviet, KGB heritage, the Soviet control of the church … This is the restoration of normal, natural relations between the churches after the unnatural relations of the Soviet period."
[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Conference of European Churches.]