Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill was in Jerusalem on Friday for his first visit to the Holy Land since becoming head of the powerful church in 2009.
As his motorcade arrived at the Old City’s Jaffa Gate, he was welcomed by heads of churches and denominations, as well as Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Fuad Twal, while a choir of Russian women sang in his honour.
Accompanied by heavy Russian and Israeli security, Kirill was led to Jerusalem’s Greek Orthodox patriarchate, where Patriarch Theophilos III greeted then accompanied him to the nearby Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
The short distance was scented with shop owners burning incense to mark the event. Hundreds of Russian pilgrims eagerly awaited the arrival of their patriarch at the church, its bells ringing.
Inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre — on the site where most Christians believe Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected — Kirill adorned a green robe, with Greek and Russian clergymen wearing ceremonial red and gold.
Following prayers and ceremonies with Theophilos III, Kirill returned to the Greek patriarchate, where he was bestowed the title of Member of the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre.
During his visit, Kirill will meet Israeli President Shimon Peres, Palestinian 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.
Over the course of his six-day stay, Kirill, 65, is due to travel to the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem, and visit Russian churches in Ein Karem and on the Mount of Olives.
He will meet chief rabbis, visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum, travel to Mount Tabor and visit Nazareth and Tiberius, as well as the nearby Church of the Twelve Apostles. He will then cross over to Jordan.
Russian Orthodox Church spokesman Father Alexander Volkov told AFP the “visit has not and cannot have a political aspect.”
But Kirill’s presence could help sort out a local problem in favour of the church, involving the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
A dispute with an Israeli water company over unpaid bills has prompted the Greek Orthodox Church, which is a joint custodian, to threaten to close it.
The company, Hagihon, has said it is owed nine million shekels ($2.1 million) in unpaid bills, but the Greeks contend the Holy Sepulchre was always treated as a special case and exempted from water fees.
The Greek patriarchate has been seeking Russian President Vladimir Putin’s help over the dispute with Hagihon.
Analysts said Putin-backed Kirill’s eventual intervention with the matter would demonstrate significant influence he wields beyond his country, where there is a community of some 150 million Orthodox believers.
Amnon Ramon, an expert on Christianity at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies and the Hebrew University, said the Russian Church, with Putin’s backing, has become a globally important Christian community.
The Greek 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 and east Jerusalem are currently home to some 120,000 Arab Christians, the vast majority of them Greek Orthodox, according to Israeli statistics.
In addition there are up to 250,000 Russian Orthodox living in Israel, according to different unofficial estimates.
Father Romanos Radwan, considered the spiritual leader of Russian Orthodox Christians in Israel, told AFP Russian Christians in Israel are reluctant to express their faith “for fear of being sent back to Russia.”
Moreover, he said, “they grew up in the communist society of the Soviet Union, and do not have much interest in religious identity. But they make sure we pray for them at the time of death.
The Russian Orthodox Church has seen a huge upsurge in influence since the fall of the atheist Soviet Union, and its leaders take a strong stand on moral issues that the Kremlin hardly ever ignores.