Pope encourages Russian opera singer to be ambassador of peace (interview)

“We Christians must be ambassadors of peace,” Pope Francis wrote in a letter sent to Leonid Sevastyanov and opera singer Svetlana Kasyan on May 5, 2022. The Russian Orthodox couple have met the pope eight times François since their first correspondence in 2013.

She is an opera singer loved by Pope Francis; he is the president of the World Union of Old Believers, a branch of Russian Orthodoxy. While the war in Ukraine has already left thousands dead and millions displaced, I.MEDIA asked Leonid Sevastyanov what it means to be an ambassador for peace today.

He also told us about the ongoing war, the position of Patriarch Kirill in the conflict and his wish to see Pope Francis come to Russia.

We received this letter from the Pope inviting Svetlana and me to be ambassadors for peace, but we have already been doing it since our first meeting with him in 2013. At that time we organized a concert for peace at the Auditorium Conciliazione [in Rome, ed.], devoted to the war in Syria. After the concert, the Pope’s secretary told us that the Pope wanted to see us, so we went to his private Mass at Saint Martha. He put us in the front row, talked to us and asked Svetlana to sing for the promotion of peace. It was in November.

Three months later, in February 2014, tragic events began in Ukraine. From then on, the pope began to send us letters, reiterating his calls for peace. I vividly remember that when I met then Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk in April 2014, Pope Francis gave him a pen and wished him to use it for peace.

We have therefore been friends with Pope Francis for almost 10 years now, and our relationship with him has always been based on the promotion of peace.

What do you think of the pope’s action in the face of this war?

For Russians, seeing a Jesuit Catholic pope, given the history of Jesuits in the country, is almost symbolic of an intrusive West. Instead, this pope is so humble. He is outside the political arena. When people ask me why I am on the side of the pope, I answer that I was struck from the beginning by the fact that he was always on the side of those who suffered, whether they were Orthodox, Catholic or otherwise. In 2014, he was still asking what he could do, how he could help. Even when I spoke to him about the war in Ukraine, he never took a political position, and that’s important.

Moreover, he is not only talking about the war on the European continent, he is also talking about the people who are dying in Africa, Latin America and elsewhere. War is a mortal sin everywhere.

In an interview with Corriere della Sera, the pope said that Patriarch Cyril “cannot become Putin’s altar boy” and that “NATO’s bark at Russia’s door” has pushed Putin to react. What do you think of these words?

I liked them because he’s tough, but he’s tough on everyone. When he talks about Kirill and NATO, he’s right about both.

The Russian Orthodox Church has always been intertwined with the state: today as it was 10, 100, 200 years ago. As an Old Believer [a Russian Orthodox religious movement, ed.]I criticize it openly, because in my opinion it is not the function of the Church.

As for NATO, the pope takes into account the psychology of the adversary, which no one else does. Russia may have felt a bit “left out of the party”. The Pope’s words helped me to better understand the situation, because I did not see the economic or political motivation for this attack. We often talk about economics and not about psychology.

I pray for the Pope to come to Russia; it could change people’s mentality. The pope would be able to propose ways of coexistence and, precisely because of his neutrality and his opposition to any war, he could influence Putin. We have to open the doors to proponents of democracy, to dictators, to everyone, to make them sit down together and exercise moral influence.

What else could the Holy See do to help resolve the conflict?

I promote the idea that the Vatican should become the capital of international politics, morally speaking. I think there is no other alternative for peace, not only for Ukraine but for the whole world. Indeed, after the Second World War, we did not create an institution which preserved us from the war. When we base our relations solely on the economy, war always ends up breaking out. We must create a new faith-based institution. There is only one institution, one state, that has always been neutral and opposed to war: the Vatican. I remember that in 2003, while I was studying in Italy, my friend Cardinal Roger Etchegaray had been sent by John Paul II to speak to Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Even with Saddam Hussein, the Vatican always tried to promote peace and seek common ground to avoid conflict.

How can this be done in practice?

I propose the creation of a kind of “round table” within the Vatican. The Holy See should invite Biden, Zelensky, NATO representatives, Putin, Xi Jinping, etc., for a summit meeting with the Pope as moderator. I don’t see any other institution, any other neutral country, that can promote peace. Everyone else is more concerned with economic issues. It is impossible to stop the war without dialogue and, in my opinion, the Holy See must assume the main and moral role. I suggested this to the Pope, but he did not respond.

And what do you think of the actions of Patriarch Cyril? Do you think he could change his attitude?

I agree with Nietzsche who said that man always acts for power, even when he talks about religion. One can only change one’s attitude if one finds some utility in it.

In Russia, the Church experienced a renaissance after the fall of the Soviet regime which it had opposed. I now expect a huge existential and religious crisis after this conflict in Ukraine, because this time the Church supports the regime. I imagine that many Ukrainians, many Russians will lose their Christian faith in the face of a Church that advocates war.

What do Orthodox believers think of Kirill’s attitude?

He’s not popular at all. Even among the bishops, many suffer in silence but inwardly disagree. It is difficult to support militarism. I can understand very well from the point of view of propaganda and politics, but not from the point of view of the Gospel; [this support] does not exist and cannot be explained.

What is your relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church?

I worked for a long time in the Russian Orthodox Church as the director of the St. Gregory Foundation, which supported the Department of External Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate, chaired by Metropolitan Hilarion. In 2018, the problems with the Patriarchate of Constantinople and the problems with Ukraine began. From then on, I felt like I didn’t want to be part of it; I didn’t want to get into these quarrels, so I left this office.

I am now the president of the World Union of Old Believers. This is a historical Russian religious tradition that split from the Orthodox Church in the 17th century because it did not accept its attachment and submission to the state. Since these 17th century reforms, the Church has always supported the State, for better or for worse. For Old Believers, on the other hand, the Orthodox tradition is community-based. My family comes from this tradition. Today, I am its representative at the political and social level. Some communities recognize the patriarch Cyril, others are still separated.

Why do you think the pope has such a close relationship with you?

I have been told in the past, “Who are you to talk to the Pope?” or “Aren’t there more important singers than Svetlana?” But in my opinion, the pope appreciates normal people. You cannot understand the people by prioritizing the “elite”. From the beginning, he told us that things can only change if normal people work for peace. Because a politician can promote peace today and forget it tomorrow, but if the majority of people promote peace, then politicians will be influenced.

And we are working on it with Svetlana. We decided to stay in Russia when this war broke out, but it’s not easy. We try to talk about and promote peace, we try to publish in the Russian press and talk about it publicly, despite the risks. We also organize cultural events and concerts dedicated to peace. We are having one in Kaliningrad, the westernmost part of Russia, on June 1. We are also helping the many refugees who have arrived here since the start of the conflict.

Patriarca Cyryl
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