Moscow (AFP)- Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill on Friday will make his first visit to the Holy Land since becoming head of the powerful church in 2009, in a trip which underlines his global influence as a religious leader.
Kirill’s first official visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories will be held “under the sign of peace,” spokesman of the Russian Orthodox Church, Father Alexander Volkov, told AFP.
The visit will see Kirill meeting with Israeli President Shimon Peres, the Palestinian Authority president Mahmud Abbas and King Abdullah II of Jordan in a new sign of his importance as a global religious figure.
His trip “is the most important (religious) visit (to Israel) since that of the Pope Benedict XVI” in 2009, Israel’s foreign ministry said.
Spokesman Volkov however ruled out any political dimension of the visit amid the search for peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and analysts stressed its symbolic nature despite the growing power of the church at home.
The “visit has not and cannot have a political aspect,” Volkov said.
“It is chiefly a diplomatic visit, which will have no major consequences,” religious affairs analyst Vladimir Oivin said.
“The Patriarch will try to play a pacifying role” in the region, but his initiative “will probably have few results,” he added
During his six-day stay, Kirill, 65, is due to celebrate Mass with Jerusalem’s Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theoplilos III and meet with other local Christian leaders.
He will also visit main Christian sites, such as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre — currently in the middle of a conflict between its co-owner, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, and an Israeli water supply company.
The Greek Patriarchate has been seeking Russian President Vladimir Putin’s help amid a dispute with Hagihon water supply company which saw Patriarchate’s bank accounts frozen as the company claimed 9 million shekels ($2.3 million, 1.8 million euros) in arrears.
Analysts said that Putin-backed Kirill’s eventual intervention with the matter would demonstrate significant influence he wields beyond his country over a community totalling some 150 million Orthodox Church members.
Amnon Ramon, an expert on Christianity at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies and the Hebrew university, said that the Russian Church with Putin’s backing has become a globally-important Christian community.
The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate “might use the powerful Russian leverage to resolve issues such as the dispute over the water bill of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre,” he said.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, some 1.2 million Russians — a quarter of them Christians — immigrated to Israel in the 1990s.
Israel is currently home to some 120,000 Arab Christians and 250,000 Orthodox Christians, according to different estimates.
The Russian Orthodox Church has seen a huge upsurge in power after the fall of the atheist Soviet Union and its leaders take a strong stand on moral issues that the Kremlin hardly ever ignores.