Pope and head of Russian Orthodox Church for historic meeting in Cuba
HAVANA, Cuba - In what will be the first papal meeting with a Russian Church leader since the 11th Century, Pope Francis will meet with Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, in Cuba this week.
The “persecution of Christians” will be the central theme of the meeting, according to the Russian Orthodox Church.
The pope will stop over in Cuba en route to Mexico, while Patriarch Kirill will be on an official visit to the communist Caribbean island.
BBC News reports that the historic meeting is set to take place at Havana airport, where the two religious leaders will sign a joint declaration.
In a joint statement, the two churches said the meeting would mark “an important stage in relations between the two churches,” and invited all Christians “to pray fervently for God to bless this meeting, that it may bear good fruits.”
Since becoming pope in March 2013, Francis has called for better relations between the different branches of Christianity.
And Metropolitan Illarion, foreign policy chief of the Russian Orthodox Church, told the press that the two churches still had their differences, particularly with respect to western Ukraine.
The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which follows Eastern Church rites but answers to the Holy See, remains an issue.
The Russian Orthodox Church considers western Ukraine its traditional territory and resents papal influence there.
But despite their differences, Metropolitan Illarion said that international events have pushed the leaders to meet.
“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,” he 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.”
Patriarch Kirill has been the head of the Russian Orthodox Church since February 2009.
The Russian Orthodox Church numbers about 165 million, while the Roman Catholic Church has more than a billion members worldwide.
The Orthodox Church is made up of several separate churches around the world.
The Vatican has existing ties with the Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I, but this will be the first meeting between the pope and the patriarch of the Russian Church, which is the largest and most powerful Church in Orthodoxy.