Pope to visit Kazakhstan, may meet Russian Orthodox patriarch

The pope has said in several recent interviews that he hopes to meet in the Kazakh capital with patriarch Kirill, who has given his full-throated backing to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which began on Feb. 24.
Pope Francis (L) and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill stand together after a meeting in Havana
Pope Francis (L) and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill stand together after a meeting in HavanaReuters

VATICAN CITY: Pope Francis will attend a meeting of religious leaders in Kazakhstan in September, the Vatican said on Monday, a gathering where he has said previously he hoped to meet with the Russian Orthodox patriarch, who backs the war in Ukraine. Francis is set to be in the capital Nur-Sultan from Sept. 13-15 to attend the VII Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, the Vatican said.

The pope has said in several recent interviews that he hopes to meet in the Kazakh capital with patriarch Kirill, who has given his full-throated backing to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which began on Feb. 24. Francis had planned to meet Kirill on June 14 in Jerusalem but cancelled that meeting on the advice of Vatican diplomats.

If the September meeting takes place, it would be only their second after they met in Cuba in 2016. The latter was the first such meeting between a pope and a leader of the Russian Orthodox Church since the Great Schism in 1054. The Vatican statement announcing the trip did not mention Kirill. It was released in Russian, Italian and English. Kazakh and Russian are the country's two official languages.

The Ukraine war has caused a rift between the Vatican and the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). In an interview published in May in an Italian newspaper, Francis said Kirill "cannot become Putin's altar boy". The ROC later chided the pope over the remark.

Kirill's position has also splintered the worldwide Orthodox Church and unleashed an internal rebellion which has led to the severing of ties by some local Orthodox Churches with the ROC. In June, Britain sanctioned Kirill for "his prominent support of Russian military aggression in Ukraine".

Hungary blocked an EU attempt to sanction him. Russian President Vladimir Putin, a member of the ROC, has described Moscow's actions in Ukraine as a "special military operation" aimed at demilitarising and "denazifying" the country.

The pope has rejected such terminology. He has several times implicitly accused Russia of "armed conquest, expansionism and imperialism" in Ukraine, and has called the conflict a "cruel and senseless war of aggression". In an interview with Reuters last month, Francis said he wanted to visit the Ukraine capital Kyiv after his return from Canada two days ago, but also wanted to go to Moscow to promoted peace.

The late Pope John Paul II visited the Kazakh capital in 2001, when it was known as Astana.

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