Pope Francis could visit St Petersburg in spring of 2018

An Italian newspaper has reported Pope Francis is likely to go to St Petersburg in the spring of 2018, following a meeting in October between the pope and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill in Wiesbaden, Germany.

The document was released by Il Messaggero on Wednesday, citing unnamed Vatican officials.

“He could possibly come in the spring, that’s what the advisers are telling him,” said Il Messaggero.

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Earlier in November, a Russian Orthodox Church leader suggested that Francis should consider a second meeting with the Russian Orthodox leadership, despite significant divisions within the Russian church between those who say “Russia is our mother” and those who say “Russia is not our mother”.

“After our historical and ecumenical meeting in Wiesbaden, it seems natural that we return to the ecumenical agenda with a second encounter,” Metropolitan Hilarion, head of the “International Church Agency” in the Russian Orthodox church, told the religious news agency Revista de Conferencia.

“Perhaps we can use the opportunity to discuss concrete ideas of which the situation in the world is not at all tranquil, not only in Russia and in the south, but even more so in western Europe. It’s almost become a formula to replace cold war schisms and divisions.”

In 2015, the Russian Orthodox Church and the Vatican signed a historic agreement on joint witness and by resolution of international tribunals, paving the way for possible dialogue on patriarchate elections.

Francis and Kirill met last week to mark the 50th anniversary of the Russian Orthodox Church’s first official ecumenical meeting with Rome. The two leaders shared a joint papal farewell and spoke of shared vision for bringing Orthodox and Catholic Christians closer together.

In two interviews published over the weekend, Kirill told a reporter from two Russian television stations that the relationship between the two churches was not similar to that between the Catholic church and the Islamic faith. Kirill told Russia’s NTV television that Catholics and Muslims could be allies against terrorism and stood up for moderate Islam.

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“The Catholic community has a lot to learn from us,” he said. “Millions of people have also joined this [independent and democratic] movement (Muslim) as well.”

Pope Francis, a strong advocate of secular humanism and a favourite with US liberals, is not in the greatest agreement with the Russian Orthodox Church on issues such as human rights and abortion. Kirill has been an outspoken critic of homosexuality and criticised refugees, especially from the Middle East. Last month, Kirill condemned “harmful behaviour” that gave rise to evangelical Christianity among Muslims in their countries.

In an interview published in September in the Chilean daily El Mercurio, Francis and Kirill clashed over the issue of the separation of church and state. “We do not have a state where religion will govern and dictate everything. Religion should leave that realm to the people,” said Francis. But Kirill disagreed, arguing that religion should not be forbidden or compromised.

Last week’s signing of the Wiesbaden document is perhaps one of the most significant relations-building efforts ever between a Russian Orthodox church and a pontiff. It is also the first document between the Catholic church and the Russian Orthodox church to touch on issues such as recognising the divinity of Christ and human rights.

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