ISTANBUL (Reuters) - The spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians and the head of the Russian Orthodox Church put on a united front on Saturday when they met for talks in Istanbul.
They were expected to discuss the sensitive issue of the churches in Ukraine and Estonia during the three-day visit to Turkey of Patriarch Kirill, enthroned in February to lead the Russian Orthodox Church.
Priests kissed Kirill’s hands and children gave him flowers when he arrived to the sound of bells ringing at the Patriarchal Church of Saint George, where he blessed parishioners and prayed at icons.
“I hope my visit will be the start of a renewal in our relationship,” Kirill told reporters before his talks with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople.
“I agree with the message of the Patriarch of Constantinople that we find ourselves as members of a joint church,” he said.
Istanbul, the ancient seat of Orthodox Christianity, is the spiritual home of the world’s 250 million Orthodox Christians.
Bartholomew, an ethnic Greek but a Turkish citizen, presides over a community of only a few thousand Greek Orthodox in Turkey, a secular but predominantly Muslim country.
“Your visit to the patriarchate and the mother church is a source of great joy and deep emotion. Your presence here carries the message of unity, togetherness and fraternity with the Holy Russian Church,” Bartholomew said.
Relations between the Churches have been strained in the past because Churches in some former Soviet states, such as Estonia, have broken away from the Russian Orthodox Church and tried to pledge allegiance to Bartholomew instead.
A spokesman for Bartholomew said the Churches of Estonia and Ukraine were expected to be on the agenda during the talks.
Ukraine and Russia have long been in dispute over the ex-Soviet state’s right to its own independent church. The global Orthodox Church does not recognise the Ukrainian Church.
Kirill will attend a joint mass with Bartholomew on Sunday and is expected to hold talks with Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul when he then visits Ankara.
Kirill, leader of 160 million Russian Orthodox believers, is seen as an outspoken moderniser who may thaw ties with the Catholic Church. He was de facto “foreign minister” of the Moscow patriarchate for two decades before succeeding Alexiy II.