Russian Orthodox Patriarch, Pope hold historic meeting, sign call to end persecution of Christians

The head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, and Pope Francis signed a joint declaration after their first historic meeting in Havana, Cuba. They called on world leaders to prevent Christians in the Middle East from “being completely exterminated” and to help refugees from those regions.

“Our gaze must firstly turn to those regions of the world where Christians are victims of persecution. In many countries of the Middle East and North Africa, whole families, villages, and cities of our brothers and sisters in Christ are being completely exterminated,” the declaration stated.

Patriarch Kirill and Pope Francis drew attention to the violence in Iraq and Syria, stressing the severity of the humanitarian problem in the region, and urging the international community to stand up and help.

“Thousands of victims have already been claimed in the violence in Syria and Iraq, which has left many other millions without a home or means of sustenance. We urge the international community to seek an end to the violence and terrorism and, at the same time, to contribute through dialogue to a swift return to civil peace. Large-scale humanitarian aid must be assured to the afflicted populations and to the many refugees seeking safety in neighboring lands.”

The two also discussed the relations between the Churches and the problems of their believers, in addition to sharing views on the progress of human civilization.

The declaration calls on the world to unite against terrorism and help free those who have been kidnapped by extremists.

“We call upon all those whose influence can be brought to bear upon the destiny of those kidnapped, including the Metropolitans of Aleppo, Paul and John Ibrahim, who were taken in April 2013, to make every effort to ensure their prompt liberation.”

The two also touched upon Ukraine, condemning the violence that has “thrown society into a deep economic and humanitarian crisis” and urging all sides to embrace a peaceful solution to the conflict. “We invite all the parts involved in the conflict to prudence, to social solidarity and to action aimed at constructing peace.”

The Churches are now looking into overcoming some historical differences and joining efforts to face the challenges of the 21st century. “Human civilization has entered into a period of epochal change. Our Christian conscience and our pastoral responsibility compel us not to remain passive in the face of challenges requiring a shared response.”

Concerns over family ‘crisis’ & same-sex marriages

Patriarch Kirill and Pope Francis also discussed their concerns over “the crisis in the family in many countries,” according to the document. Both have expressed “regret” that “other forms of cohabitation” are being “placed on the same level” as a union between a man and a woman.

At the same time the two said they were concerned that “the concept, consecrated in the biblical tradition, of paternity and maternity as the distinct vocation of man and woman in marriage is being banished from the public conscience.”

“Orthodox and Catholics share the same conception of the family … The family is based on marriage, an act of freely given and faithful love between a man and a woman. It is love that seals their union and teaches them to accept one another as a gift.”

‘Brothers at last’

“We are brothers, at last,” were the first words Pope Francis addressed to his counterpart when they met, TASS news agency reports.

“Now, it will be easier,” responded Patriarch Kirill.

It is evident that this meeting is God’s will,” said the Pontiff, in his native Spanish.

“We are meeting at the right time and at the right place. I want to emphasize once again that it became possible with God’s will,” Patriarch Kirill told the Pontiff.

The two religious leaders embraced warmly in front of the cameras before proceeding to hold closed-door two-hour talks.

Earlier in the day, Patriarch Kirill honored Cuban independence hero Jose Marti during a ceremony on Havana’s Revolution Square.

High hopes of Middle Eastern Christians

The rise of Christian persecution in the Middle East is one of the issues drawing the two churches closer, despite a nearly 1,000-year rift.

“We expect the leaders of the two confessions to have a joint position on the problems we face, especially the surviving of Christians in the region,” Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II, the head of the Syrian Orthodox Church, told RT ahead of the meeting.

Islamic State (IS, ISIS/formerly ISIL) has been systematically eradicating Christianity’s traces from the region, killing and expelling thousands of Syrian Christians and demolishing the world’s historical heritage in Iraq, Syria, and beyond.

Hundreds of thousands of Christians have been tortured, subjected to extortion, or forcibly converted, in what the European Parliament says is tantamount to “war crimes” and “genocide” by jihadists.

“Today, the Christians in the Middle East are subject to persecution. Terrorists are attempting violently to evict them from the Middle East; they hide behind the religion and kill everyone who they consider to be an infidel,” Father Gavrill Dawood from the Syrain Orthodox Church told RT. “That is why the historic meeting in Cuba is of great importance for us.”

Observers say the meeting has implications reaching far beyond the Middle East.

Ivan Jurkovic, the Vatican’s Nuncio to Russia and Uzbekistan, believes the meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill will have significant “symbolic consequences.”

He called the meeting “a good start” and a “symbol” of a new beginning for both churches. “This historic meeting is a kind of fruit of so many years of mutual positive contacts,” he told RT, adding that “we belong to the same culture.”

The schism between Rome and Constantinople that took place in the year 1054 grew out of political, cultural, and doctrinal differences. It has never fully healed. The heads of the Greek Orthodox Church and the Pope had been mutually excommunicated from each other’s branches until the mid-1960s. Unlike the Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church does not have an overall head, but Patriarch Kirill leads its biggest branch, which boasts more than 150 million believers.