Meeting to heal 1,000-year church split
Pope Francis will meet the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, in a historic meeting, the Vatican has announced.
The private meeting, which marks a major step forward in Catholic-Russian Orthodox relations, will last two hours and take place in Havana on February 12.
Speaking in the Vatican, Father Federico Lombardi said the encounter has huge significance.
"After centuries it is the first time that the Pope will meet with the head of the Russian Orthodox Church. It is an event of extraordinary importance," he said.
It is the first encounter of its kind between the two churches since the 11th century.
The Vatican's statement 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. 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 Holy See and the Moscow Patriarchate hope that it will also be a sign of hope for all people of good will."
The statement continued: "They invite all Christians to pray fervently for God to bless this meeting, that it may bear good fruits."
They added that it had taken two years to set up the meeting.
The relationship between the Pope and the Russian Orthodox Church has been strained in the past as the latter refuses to accept the Pope's primacy.
In the 11th century, a row led to what was then a unified Christian church being split into Eastern and Western branches.
"This event has extraordinary importance in the path of ecumenical relations and dialogue among Christian confessions," said Fr Lombardi.
Since the two churches split in the Great Schism of 1054, they have remained estranged over a host of issues, including the primacy of the pope and Russian Orthodox accusations that the Catholic Church is poaching converts in former Soviet lands.
Those tensions have prevented previous popes from meeting with the Patriarch, even though the Vatican has long insisted that it was merely ministering to tiny Catholic communities in the overwhelmingly Orthodox region.
However, the persecution of Christians - Catholic and Orthodox - in the Middle East and Africa has had the effect of bringing the two churches closer together.
Both the Vatican and the Orthodox Church have been outspoken in denouncing attacks on Christians and the destruction of Christian monuments, particularly in Syria.
The crackdown by Isil "unites the two churches in defence of a Christian population that is in real danger of extinction through both systematic slaughter at the hands of Isil and emigration from the region," said R. Andrew Chesnut, professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University.
The Vatican has long nurtured ties with the Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I, who is considered "first among equals" within the Orthodox Church.
Starting with Pope Paul VI, various popes have called upon the Ecumenical Patriarch in the hopes of creating closer ties with the Orthodox faithful.
But the Russian Orthodox Church, which, with some 200 million followers is the largest church in Orthodoxy and the most powerful, has always kept its distance from Rome.
Joint theological commissions have met over the years and the Russian church's foreign minister has made periodic visits to Rome, but a pope-patriarch meeting has never been possible until now.
Christopher Bellitto, church history specialist at Kean University in New Jersey, said the meeting was a model for reconciliation: "The two men are trying to heal a millennium of wounds in the Year of Mercy," he said, referring to Francis's jubilee year. "Even if they are not agreeing on everything, they are engaging in respectful dialogue - which is in short supply in our world."
Metropolitan Illarion, foreign policy chief of the Russian Orthodox Church, told reporters yesterday that there are still core disagreements between the Holy See and the Russian Church, in particular on various Orthodox churches in western Ukraine.
The conflict centres on the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, the country's second-largest church, which follows eastern church rites but answers to the Holy See. The Russian Orthodox Church has considered western Ukraine its traditional territory and has resented papal influence there.
"Despite the existing ecclesiastical obstacles, a decision has been taken to hold a meeting between Patriarch Kirill and Pope Francis," he said.
"The situation in the Middle East, in northern and central Africa and in other regions where extremists are perpetrating a genocide of Christians requires immediate action and an even closer co-operation between Christian churches," Illarion said.
"In this tragic situation, we need to put aside internal disagreements and pool efforts to save Christianity in the regions where it is subject to most severe persecution."
The location of the meeting is significant. It has long been assumed that a 'neutral' third country would be selected for any pope-patriarch encounter, but it had always been assumed that it would be somewhere in Europe.
Francis, however, played a crucial role in ending the half-century Cold War estrangement between the United States and Cuba.
That the one-time Soviet outpost in the Caribbean will now play a role in helping to heal the 1,000-year schism between the Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches is a remarkable feat of geopolitical and ecumenical choreography that may have the dual effect of thrusting President Raoul Castro into the spotlight, given that he will greet the Pope upon his arrival and preside over the signing of the joint declaration.
The Vatican spokesman, Fr Lombardi, noted that Cuba is well known to the Russian Church as well as the Catholic Church, given that three different popes have travelled to the island in the space of 20 years.
About 75pc of Russia's 144 million people call themselves Russian Orthodox, according to the latest polls, although only a fraction of them say they are observant.
Under Francis, the Vatican has encouraged continuing ecumenical ties with the Orthodox as well as other Christian denominations. And it has gone out of its way to be solicitous to Russia, especially in shying away from directly criticising Moscow over its role in the Ukraine conflict.
Kirill was the church's foreign policy chief before he became patriarch in 2009 and is well known in Vatican circles.
In a 2012 interview with a Siberian Catholic newspaper, he dwelt on the dispute around the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, but said the issue of Catholic 'snatching' of churches and flock in Russia was not as pressing as it was a decade ago.
Compared to his predecessor Alexei II, Kirill cuts a more militant figure, seeking a greater role for the church in Russia's domestic affairs.
His support for President Vladimir Putin and his government is also more pronounced than that of his predecessor, who tried to keep a distance from the Kremlin.