Pope and Patriarch to meet in Cuba

Patriarch Kirill I of Moscow, Wikipedia Commons
Patriarch Kirill I of Moscow, Wikipedia Commons

Next Friday, an historic meeting will take place between Pope Francis - head of 1.2 billion Roman Catholics across the world - and the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, whose flocks numbers 170 million. This will be the first encounter between the two leaders in almost 1,000 years and will take place in Cuba, regarded as neutral territory.

Father Federico Lombardi SJ, director of the Holy See's press office, described the meeting as “an event of extraordinary importance”, since it will be the first time that the pope had meet with the head of the Russian Orthodox Church since the Great Schism of 1054 .

A statement from the Vatican reads: "The Holy See and the Patriarchate of Moscow are pleased to announce that, by the grace of God, His Holiness Pope Francis and His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia will meet on February 12 next. Their meeting will take place in Cuba, where the Pope will make a stop on his way to Mexico, and where the Patriarch will be on an official visit. It will include a personal conversation at Havana’s José Martí International Airport, and will conclude with the signing of a joint declaration.”

It has taken two years to set up the meeting, according to the Vatican statement, which described the Russian Orthodox Church as "the biggest and most important in the world." It was in the 11th century that a row between the Eastern and Western Churches led to a split, with the Orthodox Church refusing to accept the primacy of the Bishop of Rome.

A sign of hope for all people

The chief spokesman for the Russian Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, said one of the main topics to be discussed at the meeting would be the persecution of Christians, but that they would also discuss bilateral relations and international affairs. Another topic that the Christian leaders are expected to discuss is a common date for Easter.

“In the current tragic situation it is necessary to put aside internal disagreements and unite efforts to rescue Christianity in those regions where it is subjected to the most severe persecution," he said. "The situation that is emerging today in the Middle East, North and Central Africa and in some other regions where extremists have carried out a true genocide of the Christian population, requires urgent action and closer cooperation between Christian churches."

Pope Francis’ predecessors, Pope St John Paul II and Benedict XVI, made many efforts to seek reconciliation between the Roman and Orthodox Catholic Churches but without success. In November 2014, Pope Francis said he had told Patriarch Kirill: “I’ll go wherever you want. You call me and I’ll go.”

Cuba is significant for both East and West: it had a strong Catholic population until the Communist Revolution of the 1950s before developing close ties with the Soviet Union.

"This meeting of the Primates of the Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church, after a long preparation, will be the first in history and will mark an important stage in relations between the two Churches,” the statement from the Vatican read. “The Holy See and the Moscow Patriarchate hope that it will also be a sign of hope for all people of good will ...They invite all Christians to pray fervently for God to bless this meeting, that it may bear good fruits."