Pope faces uphill struggle to unite Christians

Pope faces uphill struggle to unite Christians
Pope Francis.

VATICAN CITY - Pope Francis heads to the Middle East on Saturday on a trip partly aimed at uniting Christians but his goodwill gestures are unlikely to resolve centuries-old differences and modern-day headaches.

The logo the Vatican has designed for the visit depicts an embrace between St Peter and St Andrew - representing the Catholic and Orthodox worlds - in a sailboat under the slogan "May They Be One".

Francis will meet the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew four times on the trip, including for a prayer with clergymen from other branches of Christianity in Jerusalem on Sunday.

The entire trip is timed around the 50th anniversary of a historic meeting - also in Jerusalem - between one of Francis's late predecessors, Paul VI, and the then Constantinople patriarch Athenagoras.

But healing a rift in Christianity dating back to the 11th century is a virtually impossible task and no amount of kind words about brotherhood will do the job - at least not during the pope's tour.

In the Middle East in particular, Christians are badly divided and bickering and face pressure from rising Islamism that has forced many to emigrate.

Most recently, the Orthodox patriarchates of Jerusalem and Antioch had a territorial squabble this month over control of an archdiocese in Qatar.

The Ukraine crisis has further jammed up efforts to unite different branches of Christianity as the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which is loyal to the Vatican and is strongest in western Ukraine, is at odds with the Russian Orthodox Church.

A long hoped for historic meeting between Pope Francis and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill is hard to imagine in the current circumstances.

While the meetings with Bartholomew are significant and the patriarch has historically been seen as a "first among equals" among Orthodox leaders, he is responsible for just around 9,000 faithful in Turkey - compared to some 130 million Russian Orthodox.

"It's not magic! You don't have to dig very hard to find that the Church is divided and wounded," said David Neuhaus, a Jesuit priest in charge of Jerusalem's Hebrew-speaking Catholic community.

John Allen, a Vatican expert writing for the US daily Boston Globe, said: "It remains to be seen whether the tete-a-tete between Francis and Bartholomew can overcome mutual suspicions centuries in the making."

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