BELGRADE, Serbia – Top Roman Catholic and Orthodox dignitaries declared Monday that the time has come to close the ages-old rifts between the ancient branches of Christianity and bring East and West closer together.
Representing the world's 1.1 billion Catholics and more than 250 million Christian Orthodox, sixty bishops, metropolitans and cardinals — 30 from each side — convened in the Serbian capital Belgrade for a renewed "theological" dialogue while acknowledging that much wider issues are involved.
"East and West have been estranged from each other since the 11th century," said Orthodox Metropolitan John Zizioulas, referring to the historic schism in 1054 when the spiritual leaders in the Vatican and in Constantinople — now Istanbul, Turkey — severed ties over the rising influence of the papacy.
That split was sealed then with an exchange of anathemas — spiritual repudiations, which were lifted in the 20th century but only with halting progress toward restoring bonds.
"We experience in our time that European nations unite and create one family," he said. "It is time to recover the ancient unity. ... East and West meet now not only on the theological level, but also on the political level."
Cardinal Walter Kasper, the Vatican's most senior figure on Christian unity, said the long-separated branches should turn to their "unity in God, one faith, one baptism."
"We look to the future to build unity for Europe," he added.
The week-long gathering in Belgrade is intended to re-start the top-level dialogue after formal talks broke off six years ago.
It is also a fresh start under Pope Benedict XVI, who has appealed to all Christians to unite against what he considers rampant secularism and declining faith in the West.
The Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox, however, have a long history of disputes and rivalry. Issues include the extent of papal authority and alleged attempts by Vatican to poach followers and encroach on historically Orthodox territory, particularly Ukraine and other areas of the former Soviet Union.
"As Christians, we ask our Lord to give us strength to put behind the past," Zizioulas said.
Cardinal Kasper responded praising "forgiveness, purification of our memory of bad things, from both sides."
The last such dialogue was in Emmitsburg, Maryland, in 2000, when the representatives put together a draft document examining the issues. That effort, however, fell apart and the text was never formally debated.
The venue of the present talks, the participants said, has symbolic importance. Belgrade was the capital of the former Yugoslavia, which broke up violently in the 1990s, including battles between Roman Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs. But its ethnic groups now strive for reconciliation.
"We have gathered in a country which is recovering from great difficulties, a country that is trying to resurrect itself," Zizioulas said after Serbia's Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica greeted the guests at the opening ceremony.