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Russian church the absent player at pope-patriarch summit

Photo ~ Pope Francis (L) talks with Metropolitan Hilarion, the foreign minister of the Russian Orthodox Church, during a private meeting at the Vatican March 20, 2013.
Credit: Reuters/Osservatore Romano

(Reuters) - When Pope Francis meets the spiritual head of the world's Orthodox Christians next week, the speeches and symbolism will focus on how these ancient western and eastern wings of Christianity want to come closer together.

After almost a millennium apart, however, the key to the elusive unity they seek does not lie in Jerusalem, where the Catholic pope and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew will embrace on May 25. If anywhere, that key lies in Moscow.

The Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), by far the largest church in the Orthodox world and increasingly influential at home and abroad, has long been wary of the closer ties Francis and Bartholomew want to work towards.

Its opposition has only stiffened in recent months amid the crisis in Ukraine, where the political standoff between Russia and Europe has deepened tensions between the Moscow Patriarchate and three competing churches, one of them linked to the Vatican which Moscow accuses of trying to woo away its worshippers.

"All these unfortunate events ... take us back to the situation when Catholics and Orthodox didn’t consider themselves as allies but as enemies," said Metropolitan Hilarion, the ROC's "foreign minister" at the unusually young age of 47.