Unprecedented: Pope Francis, Russian Patriarch Kirill to meet in Cuba to heal 1,000yr rift

Pope Francis (L), Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia. © Reuters / Sputnik
The head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, is to meet his Roman Catholic counterpart, Pope Francis, during a historic visit to Latin America. The groundbreaking meeting is to happen in mid-February in Cuba.

The meeting between heads the two major Christian churches would be an unprecedented move to mend a millennium-long rift between the Western and Eastern branches of the religion, which started with the Great Schism of 1054.

The upcoming meeting confirms Russia’s status in the Christian world, according to Alexandr Avdeev Russia’s ambassador to the Holy See.  “In light of the Western sanctions, the meeting between the two celebrants is a confirmation of Russia’s role in Christian civilization,” he told TASS.

Persecution of Christians in the modern world is the main issue for the two leaders to discuss, the Russian Orthodox Church said. Christians are among the minorities suffering at the hands of groups adhering to radical Islamist ideology in places like Iraq, Syria and Somalia.

In addition to Cuba, Patriarch Kirill’s Latin American tour from February 11-22 includes Paraguay, Chile and Brazil. The meeting with Pope Francis will happen on February 12.

Pope Francis. © Tony Gentile

“The intersection of the routes allowed this meeting to be organized,” commented Metropolitan Hilarion, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church's Foreign Relations Department.

“The situation in the Middle East, in northern and central Africa and in some other regions where extremists are perpetrating genocide of Christians, requires immediate action and even closer cooperation between Christian churches.

“In the current tragic situation, we need to put aside internal disagreements and join efforts to save Christianity in the regions where it is subjected to most severe persecution,” he said.

Sergey Brun from the Museum of Russian Icons told RT that the meeting could signal a possible warming of relations between Russia and the West.

“It is a sign that the relations are going to get warmer at least between one of the parts of the Orthodox church, namely the Russian Orthodox church, and the church of Rome…I hope it will positively influence the dialogue between Russia and the West.”

The pontiff will make a stop in Cuba on his way to Mexico. 

The meeting has been in preparation for two decades and both Moscow and the Vatican agreed that some neutral country would be most suited for it. Austria and Hungary were among those considered, but Cuba was eventually chosen. The Patriarch and the Pope are expected to sign a joint declaration after the talks.

The Holy See called the upcoming meeting a “sign of good faith” and called on all Christians “to pray to God to bless the meeting,” the Vatican said in a statement.

Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Kirill. © Sergey Pyatakov

For the Russian Orthodox Church the meeting will be the biggest foreign affairs event since reuniting in 2007 with the Russian Orthodox Church outside Russia after a 90-year split.

The Great Schism formalized the break of communion between the Latin and Greek parts of Christianity after years of accumulating differences over theology, jurisdiction and ritual. The division endured over centuries, with mutual anathemas declared by the Pope and the Patriarch of what was then Constantinople (now Istanbul) in 1054 nullified only in 1965.