Pope Francis and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill will hold a historic first meeting of the heads of the two largest Christian churches next week, getting together for talks in Cuba on February 12.
The meeting will be first between a pope and a head of the Russian Orthodox Church since the Western and Eastern branches of Christianity split in the Great Schism of 1054. The branches have remained estranged over issues including Orthodoxy's refusal to recognize the primacy of the pope.
There has been rancor between the Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church, which has the biggest flock in Orthodox Christianity, over property in Ukraine and over the Russian church’s accusations that the Catholic Church seeks to poach converts.
The meeting will occur as Pope Francis stops over in Cuba on his way to a previously scheduled visit to Mexico at the same time Kirill makes an official visit to Havana.
A joint statement from the two churches on February 5 said Francis and Kirill would hold a "personal conversation" at Havana's airport that would conclude with the signing of a joint declaration. It did not specify the subject of the declaration.
The Russian Orthodox Church said separately that Kirill will meet with the pope because of what it called the need for a joint response to the persecution of Christian minorities in the Middle East and elsewhere.
A senior Russian Orthodox cleric, Metropolitan Illarion, said in Moscow that "the situation shaping up today in the Middle East, in North and Central Africa, and in some other regions where extremists are carrying out a genuine genocide of the Christian population demands urgent measures and even closer cooperation between Christian churches."
Both the Vatican and the Russian Orthodox Church have been outspoken in denouncing attacks on Christians and the destruction of Christian monuments, particularly in Syria.
In Syria, where Christians have historically made up 10 percent of the population, the minority has been targeted by extremist groups seeking to create an Islamist state. Thousands of Christians, including members of both the Western and Eastern branches of Christianity, have fled to neighboring countries as refugees.
The Roman Catholic Church is the largest Christian congregation, with some 1.2 billion members worldwide. The Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I, is considered “first among equals” within Orthodox Christianity, but the Russian Orthodox Church is the largest single Eastern Christian congregation, with some 165 million adherents -- most of them in Russia.
A meeting with the Russian Orthodox Church chief eluded Francis's two immediate predecessors, Benedict and John Paul II, who both tried but failed to reach agreement with Kirill and previous patriarchs to hold talks on the prospects for eventual Christian unity.
Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill are also expected to discuss long-standing tensions between their two churches, including disputes over church property in Ukraine and over the Catholic Church's activities in Russia.
The Russian Orthodox Church has accused Catholics of trying to convert people from Orthodoxy after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. The Vatican denies the charge, saying it is simply ministering to the small Catholic community in the majority Orthodox country.
The two churches are also at odds over the status of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which follows Orthodox rites but is allied with Rome.
One point of tension is the status of those congregations' properties that Soviet dictator Josef Stalin confiscated in Ukraine and gave to the Russian Orthodox Church. After the fall of communism, many of those properties were unilaterally taken back by the congregations that lost them, leaving the dispute simmering.
The meeting in Havana was brokered by Cuban President Raul Castro, who hosted the pope in Cuba last year. The choice of Cuba as the meeting site appears to recognize the unique status of the communist island country as an overwhelmingly Roman Catholic nation but with long political ties to Moscow.
The site also offers a neutral venue far from Europe, where most disputes between the two churches have occurred.
Metropolitan Illarion, who is the foreign policy chief of the Russian Orthodox Church, said on February 4 that Patriarch Kirill has always objected to meeting in Europe because "it is namely Europe with which this tragic history of divisions and conflicts among Christians is linked."
With reporting by Reuters, AP, and AFP