In historic encounter with leader of Russian Orthodox Church, pope set to meet staunch Kremlin ally

MOSCOW – He is a man who many hoped would reform the Russian Orthodox Church – but he has been a conservative force with the ear of the Kremlin. He is renowned for his openness to other branches of the Christian faith – and also a lover of fine watches, luxury cars and comfortable living.

Patriarch Kirill, who has led the Russian Orthodox Church since 2009, is meeting Pope Francis on Friday in a historic encounter, the first ever between the heads of the two churches. And though he has a sharply different personal style from the homespun Francis, both men have made building ties among Christians a major focus of their careers.

Kirill “has always been the face of Russian orthodoxy ecumenism in the West,” said Chad Pecknold, a theologian at Catholic University of America. “His entire career has been, in a sense, a preparation for this kind of meeting.”

The 69-year-old patriarch grew up in the officially atheist Soviet Union, where the Orthodox Church was at times repressed and at other times exploited by Communist leaders. Unlike many priests in the Soviet era, who held down secular jobs outside their religious duties, Kirill spent his entire career inside the church.

During the 18-year reign of Kirill’s predecessor, Alexy II, the future patriarch was the church’s chief diplomat as it rebuilt itself after Communism. He was a participant in the moves that took the church progressively closer to the center of Russian official life, allying the church with the Kremlin as President Vladimir Putin made the Orthodox faith a centerpiece of Russia’s cultural life. He backed Putin in 2012 presidential elections, and appears in so many Kremlin celebrations it sometimes looks as though the church is another branch of the Russian government.

In the West, Kirill may be best-known for moments in which he has trumpeted sharply conservative, nationalist views – and also for his $30,000 Breguet watch, which disappeared in doctored church photos for which the church hierarchy later apologized.

The deception was caught when the gold watch could be seen in a highly reflective wooden table in 2012, but not on the patriarch’s wrist. He also wore the watch to a 2009 television interview in Ukraine where he focused on the importance of modesty and disdain for material trappings.

And when members of the opposition group Pussy Riot were sentenced to two years in prison after they sang an anti-Putin song in Moscow’s main Orthodox church in 2012, Kirill condemned calls inside the church for leniency. The performance was “blasphemy,” he said, backing the maximum sentence in a Siberian labor camp.

“We hope society and the country will be able to provide adequate measures of reeducation,” he said at the time.

More recently he has blessed the work of the Russian military in Syria, saying that they are engaged in a “defensive” war and that Russia’s air force is justified to take part.

Michael Birnbaum e Andrew Roth 

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