Patriarch Kirill’s visit to Poland: provocations as obstacles on the way to Russo-Polish reconciliation

Dmitry Babich

The unprecedented visit of the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox church, reverend Kirill, to Poland is going to be a historic occasion. The Patriarch will meet with the mead of Polish church and they will jointly promote reconciliation between Russia and Poland. Hopefully, this noble step will help to distill at least some of the negative publicity that has been created around the church and Kirill himself in the recent months.

The scandal around the “punk prayer” of the Pussy Riot group in Russia’s main Orthodox cathedral, as well as several smaller PR operations against the Russian Orthodox church, somewhat overshadowed a much more important fact. Namely, that Kirill is indeed a very important reformer of our church, who, among other things, is seeking to build bridges between Russian Orthodox Christianity and Western churches, primarily the Roman Catholic one.

Formally the Patriarch is coming to Poland on invitation from reverend Savva, the Orthodox Christian Metropolitan of Warsaw and all of Poland. But he will also meet with the Polish president Bronislaw Komorowski, the marshal of the Polish parliament Bogdan Borusiewicz and the head of the Polish Catholic Episcopacy, archbishop Jozef Michalik.

The heads of the Russian Orthodox and Polish Catholic churches will come out with a joint appeal to the Polish and Russian nations, urging them to take steps towards a true reconciliation, healing the wounds of the tumultuous twentieth century. The appeal will also call on both nations to build their common future together.

If everything works out, this will indeed be a historic event since it will be the first visit of the Russian Patriarch to Poland and the first joint statement coming from the heads of the two churches. And, what is important, this time most of distance dividing the two churches was covered by the Russian side. Patriarch Kirill started his “peace crusade” by making in mid-July a personal small pilgrimage to the burial site of the Polish officers, executed on Stalin’s order in 1940 near the village of Katyn, Smolensk region (Western Russia). There Kirill consecrated a small Resurrection church, devoted to the memory of those victims of Katyn who were Orthodox Christians. This visit, widely covered in the Polish press, somewhat corrected the image of the head of the Russian Orthodox church, who is currently demonized in the media of many countries, including Poland.

Can there be problems, obstacles to the visit? Of course, there are such obstacles. And the problem is not just in Polish nationalists, although Monika Olejnik, Poland’s number one television commentator, already noted in Gazeta Wyborcza that some leaders of the nationalist Law and Order (PiS) party will view any meeting with the Russian patriarch as “a treason.” This time, however, the main problem is not in PiS and its main anti-Russian voice Adam Macieriewicz.

The main problem now is that the Patriarch is scheduled to make the appeal on the same day, August 17, when the district court in Khamovniki, Moscow, will start reading the verdict on the case of the Pussy Riot (PR). The three female members of the group, who called the Patriarch “a bitch” and “the God’s excrement” in the holiest of the holy (the altar of Russia’s main Orthodox cathedral), were lionized by nearly all Western press. Most of the Polish media outlets, unfortunately, did not make an exception. Many of them made the wrong claim that the Russian Orthodox church, or the Patriarch himself, called for a severe punishment for the perpetrators (which was not the case: in reality, the church just refused to get involved in the trial on either side.) So, the PR’ action, viewed by many Orthodox believers as a provocation, indeed could not hit harder: the punks not just insulted the Patriarch, they possibly marred the day, which was scheduled to become the day of Russo-Polish reconciliation. If the girls get the punishment of three years, demanded by the prosecution, this can easily unleash a hate wave against the Patriarch in the foreign media.

The only hope of avoiding embarrassment is that reading the verdict will take more than one day. Then the Patriarch will face the inevitable barrage of questions on the verdict not on the reconciliation day, but probably 1-2 days later. Patriarch Kirill, being a media-friendly figure, almost never refuses to give press conferences or answer questions.

It is especially sad that PR’s provocation, made global by some of the Western pop singers with their copy-cat support for PR, hit at the time when the Russian Orthodox Patriarch was possibly preparing to stretch his hand to the head of the Roman Catholic church, a move long awaited by the supporters of the Christian unity. In July 2012, during a meeting with the visiting Italian prime minister Mario Monti, widely seen as a preparation to his visit to Catholic Poland, Kirill said that his church and Vatican were linked by a “unity of views on many problems in the sphere of religious guidance and morals.” He called for a joint defense of Christian values by the Roman Catholic church, Russian Orthodox church, the world of business, culture and science. Otherwise, Kirill said, “our modern civilization will become vulnerable and exposed to attacks.”

It already is exposed, unfortunately. The Pussy Riot’s case has proved it to everyone.