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Will Francis Go To Moscow? Russian Orthodox Size Up New Pope

"It is still very early to talk about a meeting between Pope Francis and Orthodox Patriarch Kirill"
"It is still very early to talk about a meeting between Pope Francis and Orthodox Patriarch Kirill"
Pavel Korobov

MOSCOW - Catholics aren't the only ones who have noted the significance of Pope Francis' name choice.

Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev, Metropolitan of Volokolamsk and head of the Russian Orthodox Church"s Department of External Relations, says the Argentine pontiff's decision to honor Saint Francis of Assisi puts "service to the poor” at the top of the new pope's agenda.

According to Hilarion, such service is a good starting point for the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox Churches to find new ways to work together. “We see a large area of possibilities for partnership with the Roman Catholic Church,” he said. “We hope that our relationship as partners will grow under the leadership of this new pontiff.”

“We hope that Francis will give a push to the development of good relations between our churches, continuing a process started by his predecessor,” explained Dimitry Sizonenko, Secretary of the Department of Inter-Christian relations in the Russian Orthodox Church. “Pope Francis has said before that he likes Dostoevsky, and we would like to think that he might also like the spiritual tradition of the Russian Orthodox church.”

People who know the new pope say that the hoped-for warming in the two churches’ relationship is entirely possible. “As the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio regularly visited Russian Orthodox Churches on Christmas Eve,” said Orthodox Bishop John, the Bishop for South America whose headquarters is located in the Argentinian capital.

He concludes that: “the new pope has a good relationship with Russian Orthodoxy and with Russian Orthodox believers.”

Russian Catholics are also betting that under Pope Francis there will be progress in Catholic-Orthodox relations. Igor Kovalevski, the general secretary of the Russian Conference of Bishops, noted that the newly-elected pope is well-versed in Byzantine Christian traditions since he also led Argentina's community of Greek Catholics, who are in full communion with the pope but have a liturgical tradition that is distinct from Roman Catholics.

"So he knows about the relationship between Orthodox Christianity and Catholicism," says Kovalevski.

Finding neutral ground

According to Igor Baranov, one of the editors of the "Catholic Encyclopedia,” Pope Francis’s stances on social issues like marriage, abortion and euthanasia are similar to the Orthodox Church’s. “Just as the image of St. Francis of Assisi is important in Russian culture, so the image of Pope Francis will become close to Russian spirituality,” Baranov said.

There has been tension between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church since the 1990s, when Catholics in Ukraine seized Orthodox churches. For that reason, the two sides say that in spite of the positive predictions, it is still very early to talk about a meeting between Pope Francis and Orthodox Patriarch Kirill.

“A meeting between the new pontiff and the patriarch would probably have to take place on neutral territory and not until Russia is ready for it,” Kovalevski explained.

Orthodox Bishop Hilarion concurs: “I think that a meeting is possible, but its time and place will be largely determined by how quickly we can get over the conflicts that arose in the 1980s and 90s.”

Hilarion also said that Pope Francis has declared on more than one occasion that he feels close to the Orthodox Church and would like to have close contact between the two churches. As the diplomatic representative of the Russian Orthodox Church, Hilarion will have his first meeting with the new pope sometime this week.

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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