The patriarch Kiril, head of the Russian Orthodox church, is conducting a historic visit to Poland in an attempt to effect a national as well as religious reconciliation between Russians and Poles.
While the gesture has been compared to a similar act of reconciliation in 1965, between the German and Polish churches, when a joint letter by the churches called for mutual forgiveness, the current visit goes deeper. When Germany and Poland engaged in reconciliation in 1965, the Federal Republic of Germany, that was then West Germany, was half Catholic. Poland was then under a communist regime.
Russian Polish enmity goes deep and both countries have invaded each other. Orthodox Russia looked upon Poland as an apostate among the Slavic peoples who were generally Orthodox. The Poles viewed themselves as the advanced post of the West against the Eastern barbarism of Russia. Catholicism was considered part of Polish national identity and the core of its resistance against two historic enemies, Protestant Prussia and Orthodox Russia.
Kiril's visit took place against a backdrop of two anniversaries in Russia: 400 years since the liberation of Moscow from Polish troops and 200 years since Russia's victory over Napoleon.
Poles seeking independence from Russia had taken part in Napoleon's ill-fated invasion of Russia. The Russian patriarch noted "In those times, we sort of were on the opposite sides of the barricades. The above anniversaries reflect the complicated and contradictory nature of our relations that sometimes verged on alienation and open enmity. But political battles were preceded by the loss of the initial Christian unity between the Eastern and Western Churches."
After the collapse of communism in Russia, the Orthodox Church was resurgent because of the backlash against the Communist regime's policy of state-imposed atheism. The Orthodox Church was extremely zealous about its newfound position and enlisted the Russian government against proselytism by Western churches. Vladimir Putin has made a point of encouraging the church, both at home and abroad, and Russian dissidents have attacked the symbiotic relationship.
The leader of the Polish church, Metropolitan Jozef Michalik, praised the Orthodox Church as having produced great saints and many martyrs.
Michalik, at a time that the Russian Orthodox Church is under attack because of its role in the Pussy Riot case, praised the Russian Orthodox Church for loving the Russian people and courageously guarding them "from unilateral liberal progress"and stressing the importance of religious conscience in modern society.
The Catholic Church in Poland is also facing an anti-clerical attack from the Palikot party, which has 10 percent of the seats in the Polish Sejm and wants to scale back church influence.