LONDON – The head of Russia's Orthodox Church begins a four-day visit to Britain Saturday that includes an audience with Queen Elizabeth II, but his visit has stirred some resistance because of his strong support of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Patriarch Kirill is set to be in London to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the establishment of the Russian Orthodox Church in Britain. The main purpose of the trip is to meet with his congregation, but he also will visit with Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and see the queen at Buckingham Palace.
The visit will make Kirill the first Russian Orthodox Church patriarch to visit Britain. He will hold a number of prayer services and blessings at various Russian Orthodox sites.
The audience with the queen has been questioned at a time when British-Russian relations are strained by disagreements over Russia's actions in Syria and Ukraine.
A close ally of Putin, Kirill has said that Russia's role in Syria is "remarkably honest and honorable."
Labour Party legislator John Woodcock, active on his party's defense committee, said it is "very troubling" for someone so close to Putin to be given red-carpet treatment at Buckingham Palace at a time when Russia is supporting a "murderous Syrian regime."
Some are concerned that Kirill's meeting with the queen will be used to boost Putin in Russia. Labour Party lawmaker Alison McGovern said it is wrong to give "a PR opportunity to one of President Putin's key allies."
In Russia, church spokesman Metropolitan Hilarion told the state news agency RIA Novosti that Kirill's visit would "strengthen mutual trust" between the two countries. Hilarion acknowledged relations "have been going through difficult times over recent years," but cited earlier periods of cooperation.
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson told Parliament on Tuesday that Russia risks becoming a "pariah nation" as a result of its position in Syria. Moscow denies striking civilian targets in Syria.
Associated Press writer Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this report.