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November 20, 2017
Top Vatican diplomat focuses on Ukraine, Middle East in Russia talks
Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican Secretary of State. Credit: Saeima via Wikimedia (CC BY 2.0).
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.- The need to find peaceful solutions to global conflicts, particularly in Ukraine and the Middle East, has taken a front seat so far in the Vatican Secretary of State's meetings with Russian government and Russian Orthodox Church officials.

In a statement following his Aug. 22 meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Cardinal Pietro Parolin said the meetings so far have been intense, and offered his thanks to the Russian authorities for their cordial welcome to the country.

He met with Lavrov on the second day of his Aug. 21-24 visit to Russia, which marks the first time a Vatican Secretary of State has traveled to Moscow in 18 years. It also falls 18 months after Pope Francis' meeting with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill in Havana.

While conversation with Lavrov touched on several issues, Cardinal Parolin said that when it came to topics of international interest, he first of all reiterated the Holy See's desire to find “just and lasting solutions” for the global conflicts raging in “the Middle East, Ukraine and various other regions of the world.”

“If, in such dramatic situations, the Holy See is more directly active in the effort to promote initiatives aimed at alleviating the suffering of peoples, at the same time it clearly expresses the appeal that the common good prevail; principally justice, lawfulness, the truth of facts and the abstention of manipulating them, and the safe and dignified living conditions for civilian populations,” Cardinal Parolin said.

He stressed that the Holy See does not, nor can it, affiliate itself with any particular political position. As such, he reminded the parties of their duty “to strictly adhere to the principals of international law.”

Respect for these laws, he said, “is indispensable for the protection of world order and peace, for the recovery of a healthy atmosphere of mutual respect in international relations.”

On the situation in the Middle East, Cardinal Parolin said that while the two states have different approaches to the issue, they share a “strong concern for the situation of Christians in some countries of the Middle East and the African continent, as well as in some other regions of the world.”

He also voiced the Holy See's concern for religious freedom, specifically that it is “preserved in whatever state and whatever political situation.”

Discussion also touched on bilateral relations between Russia and the Holy See, and special attention was paid to the positive experiences the countries share in terms of collaboration between scientific and medical institutions.

To this end, both Cardinal Parolin and Lavrov affirmed their commitment to continuing this collaboration, and the two signed a joint agreement to waive visa requirements for individuals who travel with diplomatic passports.

Concern was also raised for the life of the Catholic Church in Russia, specifically in regards to the ability to obtain working residence permits for non-Russian religious who come to serve in the country, as well as the return of Church property which is “necessary for the pastoral care of Catholics in the country.”

Cardinal Parolin said that when these issues were voiced, Lavrov showed “great attention to the solution to these problems and the desire to follow them.”

He met with Lavrov a day after speaking with Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, whose role as President of the Department for External Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate makes him more or less number-two in the Russian Orthodox Church.

During the discussion, concerns surrounding conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East also came up as major talking points.  

Attention was immediately brought to the “tragic situation of Christians in the Middle East,” which Metropolitan Hilarion called “one of the most burning problems today.”

Reference was made to the efforts on the part of the Moscow patriarchate to provide humanitarian aid to suffering populations in Syria, as well as an ad hoc working group that has been established to help broker greater cooperation with the Presidential Commission for Cooperation with Religious Associations, and includes several representatives from the Russian Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church, as well as Muslim communities and several other Christian confessions.

Both parties agreed that in order to reach a peaceful solution to the Syrian crisis “it is necessary to put an end to terrorism in the territory of Syria,” and only after peace has been reached should “its political future be determined.”

The two voiced their agreement on the need to consult each other more often on the Middle Eastern crisis, and to continue cooperation in providing humanitarian aid to the area.

On Ukraine, Metropolitan Hilarion took issue with several bills he said are aimed at “discriminating against the Ukrainian Orthodox Church” and which are still on the agenda for Ukraine's parliament. He thanked Cardinal Parolin and the Holy See for supporting the stand taken by the Moscow patriarchate on the issue.

Concern was raised by Metropolitan Hilarion regarding what he called “cases of politicized statements and aggressive actions” on the part of some members of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.

However, he and Cardinal Parolin were able to voice a shared conviction that “politics should not interfere in Church life,” and stressed the important role that Churches in Ukraine play in terms of peacemaking and in helping to “establish a civic accord in the country.”

Discussion between the two closed after touching on various opportunities for greater bilateral collaboration in the cultural and educational fields.

Following his meeting with Lavrov this morning, Cardinal Parolin is set to visit with Patriarch Kirill later on in the evening, and the two will hold a brief press conference afterward.

On Aug. 23, the last day of his visit, Cardinal Parolin will head to Sochi for an official meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The meeting marks the last official event on the cardinal's schedule before his return to Rome Aug. 24.