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Russian Patriarch visits Poland as Pussy Riot verdict looms

14 august 2012, 17:36
0
The first-ever visit by a Russian Orthodox Church head to deeply Catholic Poland begins Thursday, but the landmark trip risks being overshadowed by a verdict expected in Moscow in the Pussy Riot trial, AFP reports.

Invited by Poland's Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill is expected to co-sign an historic call for reconciliation with his Catholic counterpart, visit the holy mountain of Grabarka -- a revered site of Orthodox worship -- and meet with Poland's President Bronislaw Komorowski, members of parliament and senators.

But his arrival will come amid a storm of controversy over the prospect of three years of prison for all-girl Russian band Pussy Riot as punishment for their anti-Putin "punk prayer" in Moscow's Christ the Saviour Cathedral in February.

Verdicts for lead singer Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, and her mates Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30, and Maria Alyokhina, 24, are expected Friday -- the second of Patriarch Kirill's four days in Poland -- when a global day of support is planned for the three women.

They were charged with "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred" after Kirill denounced them as an affront to all religious Russia and demanded the most severe punishment possible under the law.

Their cause has already mustered support from more than a dozen prominent Polish artists and academics, including film directors Andrzej Wajda, Agnieszka Holland and Marcel Lozinski.

However, no protests were planned for the Patriarch's arrival as of Monday.

Despite the international outrage over the rights case, Alexander Volkov, spokesman for the Russian Orthodox Church, insists the patriarch's visit to Warsaw has no political overtones.

"Patriarch Kirill will come to Poland for a brotherly and friendly visit," he told AFP recently.

Marred by four centuries of conflict, Polish-Russian ties have been indelibly marked by imperial Russia's 19th century occupation of eastern Poland and the Soviet Union's imposition of communism on the country for nearly half a century after World War II.

With a population of 38.2 million, the homeland of the late pope John Paul II is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic but counts some half a million Orthodox faithful, according to official statistics.

Relations between the two churches have also suffered. For years, the Polish-born pope dreamed of visiting Russia to forge an historic reconciliation between Rome and Moscow prior to his death in 2005.

But having grown close to the Kremlin after the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Orthodox Church was vehemently opposed.

According to Volkov, circumstances have now changed.

"Relations between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church are now at a very high level, marked by ongoing dialogue and exchange," he said.

In the run-up to Kirill's arrival, Poland's Roman Catholic episcopate also stressed its desire for reconciliation with its Russian Orthodox brothers.

"Our message is a call to the faithful and all who support soul searching followed by a mutual asking for forgiveness," said Archbishop Jozef Michalik, head of Poland's Roman Catholic Church.

According to a source close to the Polish church, the joint appeal by Kirill and Michalik will include a "call to prayer for divine forgiveness of our mutually-inflicted errors, injustices and wrongs."

"We are convinced this is a first step on the road to mutual forgiveness and reconciliation, a path which is not easy and which risks taking years," the source said.

Despite centuries of frosty ties, the two churches share one strong common point: both vehemently reject Western liberal values.

"Today, the Western world is systematically abandoning certain fundamental ethical values of morality, goodness and natural law," Michalik recently told Poland's PAP news agency, insisting that Orthodox Church fathers shared his viewpoint.

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