The Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomeos I of Constantinople, has left Russia after a 10-day visit praised by his hosts for strengthening relations with the Russian Orthodox Church and promoting a united Christian message - writes Sophia Kishkovsky.
Bartholomeos spent 30 May 2010, the last full day of his visit in St Petersburg, where he concelebrated a service with Moscow Patriarch Kirill I at the historic St Isaac's Cathedral, a monumental 19th century structure that took 40 years to build.
"I am happy that with each meeting we are becoming closer to one another," Patriarch Kirill said after the service, the Interfax news agency reported. "The holiness and fullness of Orthodoxy overcomes all division."
The Russian Orthodox Church is the world's largest Orthodox church. The Ecumenical Patriarchate is often 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.
In addition, intra-Orthodox conflicts over jurisdictional allegiance have flared in Estonia and Ukraine as some Orthodox groups sought to break free of Moscow when their countries gained independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Kirill and Bartholomeos had already concelebrated at two services in Moscow, including the feast day of Pentecost on 23 May, where they spoke of the importance of unity and of the close ties between the Russian church and its Byzantine heritage.
On 29 May, the Ecumenical Patriarch officiated at the Alexander Nevsky Lavra monastery in St Petersburg, where he praised Russians, particularly Patriarch Kirill.
"After a 70-year storm of militant atheism, Russia, its church and its people have begun a new period in history, and this period will be even more glorious because you have such a wonderful patriarch," the Ecumenical Patriarch said at the service. "Be proud of what you have, be proud of your faith and national identity, of your uniqueness."
Boris Falikov, an expert on the Russian Orthodox Church from the Russian State University for the Humanities, wrote in Gazeta.ru, an Internet newspaper, the visit had shown that that Moscow and Constantinople want to solidify a united front, not only with each other but also with Rome.
"Both of them understand very well," wrote Falikov of Kirill and Bartholomeos, "that in today's Western world, which is rapidly losing its faith, Christianity can survive only if it restores its past unity. I underscore, Christianity, and not one of its branches - Orthodoxy.
"And here on the scene inevitably arises the figure of the Pope of Rome, who likewise understands perfectly well that without the creation of a united Christian front, the battle with 'aggressive secularism' will be hopelessly lost."
The visit by Bartholomeos to Moscow came after a mission to the Vatican by Metropolitan Hilarion, Kirill's successor as chairperson of the Moscow Patriarchate's Department of External Church Relations.
On 4 June, Pope Benedict XVI is to begin a visit to Cyprus, where the Orthodox church accounts for the overwhelming majority of Christians.
"For the first time in the history of the 'Great Schism', the Vatican, Constantinople and Moscow are speaking of the necessity of coming closer together in practically the same language," said Falikov. He was referring to the formal break in relations between Rome and Constantinople in 1054.
After the service in St Petersburg on 30 May, the two patriarchs visited the Catherine Palace at Tsarskoye Selo, the summer residence of the tsars, where Kirill conducted a tour for Bartholomeos in English. Kirill rarely speaks English in public.
Orthodoxy came to Russia from Byzantium through Kiev and the Baptism of Rus' in 988, when Prince Vladimir chose the Orthodox faith as his kingdom's new religion.
Some Ukrainian Orthodox, including former president Viktor Yushchenko, who do not want to be under the control of Moscow, have sought recognition by the Ecumenical Patriarchate.
In an interview with the Russian state television channel Vesti-24 broadcast on 30 May, however, Patriarch Bartholomeos called on Ukrainians who had broken away from the Moscow Patriarchate to "join the canonical church, which is the vessel of salvation".
In the interview, the Ecumenical Patriarch also said that the process of organizing a council of all the canonical Orthodox churches in the world is being speeded up.
[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.]