VATICAN CITY (AP) — In an historic step to heal the 1,000-year schism that split Christianity, Pope Francis and the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church will meet in Cuba next week in an attempt to begin bridging the church's East-West divide.
The Feb. 12 meeting between Francis and Patriarch Kirill was announced Friday by both churches. It will be the first-ever meeting between the leaders of the Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church, which is the largest in Orthodoxy.
Francis is due to travel to Mexico Feb. 12-18. He will stop in Cuba on the way and meet with Kirill at the Havana airport, where they will speak privately for about two hours and then sign a joint declaration, the Vatican said.
"This event has extraordinary importance in the path of ecumenical relations and dialogue among Christian confessions," said the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi.
The two churches split during the Great Schism of 1054 and 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 ever meeting with the Russian patriarch, even though the Vatican has long insisted that it was merely ministering to tiny Catholic communities in the overwhelmingly Orthodox region.
Violence that threatens to extinguish the presence of Christians — Catholic and Orthodox — in the Middle East and Africa, however, has brought the churches closer together. Both the Vatican and the Orthodox Church have been outspoken in denouncing Islamic extremist attacks on Christians and the destruction of Christian monuments, particularly in Syria, where Russia has engaged in a bombing campaign in support of the Damascus government.
The meeting was years in the works and marks a major development in the Vatican's long effort to bridge the divisions in Christianity. For Kirill, it is perhaps trickier.
"Conservative forces within Moscow have said we don't like this reunification with the west ... (it) weakens us," noted Chad Pecknold, a theologian at Catholic University of America and author of "Christianity and Politics: A Brief Guide to the History."
He suggested the choice of Cuba, with its Soviet and communist ties, was significant particularly for Kirill, who will be in Cuba on an official visit at the time, his first to Latin America as patriarch.
In November 2014, Francis said he had told Kirill: "I'll go wherever you want. You call me and I'll go."
In the joint statement, the churches said the meeting "will mark an important stage in relations between the two churches."
Metropolitan Illarion, foreign policy chief of the Russian Orthodox Church, told reporters Friday that there are still core disagreements between the Holy See and the Russian Church, in particular over various Orthodox churches in western Ukraine.
The conflict centers on the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, the country's second-largest, 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.
Still, Illarion said, the threats to Christian communities in the Middle East and northern and Central Africa requires immediate action.
"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," he said.
About two-thirds of the world's Orthodox Christians, or about 200 million, belong to the Russian Orthodox Church, the largest and most powerful church in Orthodoxy. The Catholic Church claims about 1.2 billion faithful.
The Vatican has long nurtured ties with the Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I, who is considered "first among equals" within the Orthodox Church.
But the Russian Orthodox Church 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' jubilee year. "Even if they are not agreeing on everything, they are engaging in respectful dialogue — which is in short supply in our world."
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 Europe had always been considered the natural location.
Cuba, though, presents a perhaps ideal location: physically removed from European territorial disputes between the churches, officially communist, yet known to both because of its colonial and more recent past.
In addition, Francis 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 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 added effect of thrusting President Raoul Castro into the spotlight. Castro will greet the pope upon his arrival and preside over the signing of the joint declaration.
The Vatican spokesman, Lombardi, declined to speculate about a possible papal trip to Russia, or to offer hints about what the joint declaration might say. Pecknold, the Catholic University theologian, noted that a common date for Easter has been a long-sought goal in ecumenical circles.
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 criticizing 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, Kirill dwelt on the dispute around the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church but said the issue of Catholic snatching of churches and flock in Russia is 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 the government is also more pronounced than his predecessor who tried to keep a distance with the Kremlin.
Nataliya Vasilyeva contributed from Moscow; Rachel Zoll contributed from New York.
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