Pope Francis and Russian church leader hold historic meeting

Pontiff and patriarch meet in Havana to heal millennium-long rift between churches

Pope Francis in conversation with head of the Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill, in Havana, Cuba. Photograph: Getty Images

Pope Francis in conversation with head of the Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill, in Havana, Cuba. Photograph: Getty Images

 

Pope Francis arrived in Havana on Friday to meet the head of the Russian Orthodox Church nearly 1,000 years after eastern orthodoxy split with Rome, marking the first encounter in history between a Roman Catholic pope and a Russian Orthodox patriarch.

The two religious leaders, guests of a Communist government, will address the millennium-long rift between the western and eastern branches of Christianity.

Cuban president Raul Castro and Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the church’s highest representative in Cuba, greeted the pope on arrival in the capital, minutes before the pontiff met Patriarch Kirill.

Pope Francis, dressed in white with a skullcap, and Patriarch Kirill, wearing a tall, domed hat that dangled a white stole over black robes, joined arms and kissed on both cheeks when they met inside the terminal. They then sat down for a chat with aides on either side.

They were expected to unite in an appeal for an end to persecution and killing of Christians in the Middle East.

Their meeting, announced just a week ago, also carried political overtones, coming at a time of Russian disagreements with the west over Syria and Ukraine.

Rapprochement

The pope was scheduled to remain in Cuba for 3½ hours before continuing on to Mexico for a five-day visit.

Patriarch Kirill arrived in Havana on Thursday and was also greeted by Mr Castro, an ally of Russia who also received Pope Francis in Cuba just five months ago.

The Argentine pontiff previously played a role in rapprochement between the United States and Cuba, which restored diplomatic relations last year after a 54-year break.

Now the pope is seeking to repair a much longer rupture. Eastern orthodoxy split with Rome in 1054, and today the Russian church counts some 165 million of the world’s 250 million Orthodox Christians.

Patriarch Kirill, on a longer stay, will also visit Cuba’s small Russian Orthodox Church, built between 2004 to 2008 and attended by Russian holdovers from the decades of Soviet influence in Cuba.

Russian president Vladimir Putin has supported the Russian church, which in turn has backed Kremlin foreign policy, most notably in Ukraine and the Middle East.

Mr Putin has also improved relations with Cuba, which were strained following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.