“Historic” is an adjective all too often applied to many events, occasionally even in this newspaper. But no one can doubt the historic nature of the meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill on Feb. 12.
It was the first meeting between the head of the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox Churches since the schism in 1054. As the thousand year divide was bridged, Pope Francis said, with typical under-stated humour: “Finally, we meet as brothers.”
Both leaders deserve huge credit for putting a millennium of distrust behind them. It is likely that prominent figures in both churches would have urged caution, but Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill over-ruled this opposition.
Their meeting in Cuba – which willingly agreed to host the talks – was full of significance and not only for the hundreds of millions who belong to the two biggest churches in Christianity. It has also helped provide an answer to those who try to paint faith as a source of increased division and tension.
It is an accusation which has sadly, in recent times, been all too easy to make. Across the world, we have witnessed the hijacking of religious beliefs by violent extremists who have used them to justify their barbarism and hatred. The result has been great loss of life, destruction and despair.
We cannot allow the extremists to succeed in their efforts to abuse religion for their own perverted goals. As President Nursultan Nazarbayev has said, it is states and people who are in conflict not religions. It is clear for all who want to see that the great religions share far more than divides them.
Kazakhstan takes great pride in being a society that demonstrates this common purpose. Followers of all the great faiths live in our country in harmony. Freedom of worship is guaranteed not only by our Constitution but in the genuine respect for the common, decent values which underpin our religions and have provided the foundation for humanity’s progress over many centuries.
Under the leadership of President Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan has worked tirelessly to promote religious understanding and tolerance at both a regional and international level. These efforts include the triennial Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, which is an increasingly influential forum since it first met in Astana in 2003.
The Fifth Congress last summer drew high representatives of all the main religions and more than 70 delegations as well as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Its role in providing a platform for dialogue for political and faith leaders has never been more valuable.
A stable, prosperous and peaceful world can only be built if we eliminate misunderstandings and suspicions between religions and countries. It is why the meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill in Havana was so important. In a week when we also learned that U.S. President Barak Obama is to visit Cuba – another major step in ending a damaging diplomatic rift, which itself stretches back over half a century – it sent a powerful message of hope to the world.