Russian minority churches have voiced cautious optimism about their prospects under the country’s new Orthodox patriarch, Kirill I, after messages of welcome from church leaders worldwide following his installation on Feb. 1.
“Kirill’s recent words about non-Orthodox denominations can been seen as electoral rhetoric intended to win over supporters of more conservative candidates,” said Archbishop Edmund Ratz, the head of the 75,000-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in Russia and Other States. “We’ll have to see how much weight he’ll now have with the country’s political rulers, and whether he’s as free now as patriarch to have contacts with other churches.”
In an interview with Ecumenical News International, Ratz said he believed Patriarch Kirill was “ecumenically minded,” but noted that Protestants were unsure whether the new Orthodox leader would help them with practical difficulties, including their endeavours to regain churches confiscated under Soviet rule.
The legal officer of Russia’s Union of Evangelical Christian Baptists said his church held the same position as the Russian Orthodox Church on most moral and social issues, including homosexuality, and counted on Orthodox help in finding solutions to local issues.
“The late Patriarch Alexei II received Baptist delegations on several occasions, and we hope our top-level dialogue will continue developing,” said Pavel Belkov, whose union has 80,000 members in 1,750 congregations and is Russia’s single Protestant denomination.
“The new patriarch has great moral authority, and we hope our good relations will encourage local officials to settle our difficulties and ensure our needs are met,” Belkove stated.
The former Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad was elected on Jan. 27 as Russia’s 16th patriarch, after handling ecumenical relations for 18 years as head of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department for External Church Relations.
In a message for Kirill’s Feb. 1 enthronement, the general secretary of the World Council of Churches, the Rev. Samuel Kobia, thanked him for his “friendship and companionship in the area of inter-Christian relations”, and urged him to continue “to speak to the world openly and courageously, frankly and caringly.”
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, invited Kirill to visit Britain to further the work of an Anglican-Orthodox doctrinal commission, while Pope Benedict XVI, who has met Kirill three times, praised his past contribution to “relations of friendship, mutual acceptance and sincere dialogue” with Roman Catholics.
Viktor Khroul, a Catholic editor and university lecturer told ENI, “The Vatican has had contacts with Patriarch Kirill and naturally sees him as the best choice.” He added, “But the situation looks quite different at grassroots level here. Kirill has been very strongly against any local Catholic involvement in ecumenical dialogue and has always tried to reduce the number of Catholic communities here. As patriarch, he could give an important signal by inviting our bishops to meet him or withdrawing the charges of proselytism. But it’s an open question whether he wants to help Catholics in this way.
“Archbishop Ratz said most minority churches would agree with a Jan. 29 statement by the Union of Evangelical Christian Baptists that Patriarch Kirill’s election was “a clear vote for openness and dialogue”, However, said Ratz, local Christians should also not expect “a quick resolution of ongoing differences”.
In his first address as patriarch, Kirill I said his main task would be to ensure his church’s “internal unity” and “canonical borders,” as well as acting as “guardian of the purity of faith” and preventing “schisms, dissension and false teachings.”