Metropolitan Hilarion of Russia left little room for doubt about his priorities when offered a few moments to speak during the Vatican's tense Synod on the Family.
"Militant secularism" was on the rise, he said last fall. Thus, Catholics and Orthodox Christians should stand united while defending the "traditional Christian understanding of the family," "marriage as a union between a man and a woman" and the "value of human life from conception till natural death."
But most of all, Moscow's top ecumenical diplomat wanted to talk about martyrs -- new martyrs.
Consider Iraq, home to 1.5 million Christians a few years ago. Today, 150,000 remain while the "others were either exterminated or expelled," he said. Then look at Syria, Egypt, Nigeria, Pakistan, Libya and elsewhere.
"We are deeply concerned about the humanitarian catastrophe … unfolding in Syria, where militant Islamists are seeking political power," he said. Wherever jihadists "come to power, Christians are being persecuted or exterminated. Christian communities in Syria and other countries of the Middle East are crying for help, while the mass media in the West largely ignore their cries and the politicians prefer to close their eyes."
It was a foretaste of the historic "airport summit" declaration signed in Cuba by Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill, leader of the Orthodox Church of Moscow and all Russia.
Many observers insisted that the goal of the meeting -- the first of its kind between Rome and Moscow -- was to bridge the Great Schism of 1054, which divided the Catholic and Orthodox churches. Others saw the Machiavellian hand of Russian President Vladimir Putin, seeking support for his attempts to prevent the fall of Damascus.
Using a political lens, some claimed, "Pope Francis is being taken for a ride. And so on," noted Daniel Philpott, professor of Political Science and Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.
"Such dynamics … do not rob this event of its significance for the unity of the Christian church," he argued, in an online commentary. "The declaration that the pope and the patriarch jointly signed reveals this stride towards unity to be broad and deep, built around some of the most important purposes and struggles of the Christian church in today's world. There is nothing anodyne or cosmetic about it."
Talking with reporters after the summit, Pope Francis also played down talk about the schism. The realistic goal was cooperation on crucial issues.
"If unity is to be settled through studies and theological experts ... the Lord will come again, and we will still be working on unity," said the pope. "Unity is reached by walking together. That way when the Lord does come again, he will at least find us walking together."
Thus, the pope and the patriarch pledged to stand together in defense of ancient, shared doctrines about sexuality, Christian marriage and family. They mourned that, "Millions are denied the very right to be born into the world. The blood of the unborn cries out to God." They urged Christians in Eastern and Western Europe to unite in their shared witness to Christ … so that Europe may preserve its soul."
However, issues of religious liberty and persecution dominated their joint statement. It was especially painful to watch the "massive exodus of Christians" from the very lands in which "which our faith was first disseminated and in which they have lived since the time of the Apostles," stressed Francis and Kirill.
How high are the stakes? The pope and the Russian patriarch urged people everywhere to pray for the "providential Creator of the world to protect His creation from destruction and not permit a new world war."
To be specific, Francis and Kirill stressed that their most urgent appeal was on behalf of those suffering in the Middle East and North Africa, where "whole families, villages and cities of our brothers and sisters in Christ are being completely exterminated. Their churches are being barbarously ravaged and looted, their sacred objects profaned, their monuments destroyed. …
"We bow before the martyrdom of those who, at the cost of their own lives, have given witness to the truth of the Gospel, preferring death to the denial of Christ. We believe that these martyrs of our times, who belong to various Churches but who are united by their shared suffering, are a pledge of the unity of Christians."