Pope, Russian Orthodox patriarch to meet in historic step

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VATICAN CITY | 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, both churches said Friday.

The Feb. 12 meeting between Francis and Patriarch Kirill will be the first ever 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.

The persecution of Christians — Catholic and Orthodox — in the Middle East and Africa, however, 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 IS “unites the two churches in defense of a Christian population that is in real danger of extinction through both systematic slaughter, at the hands if ISIS and emigration from the region,” said R. Andrew Chesnut, professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, using an alternative acronym for the group.

The meeting, which was announced jointly at the Vatican and in Moscow, was years in the works and marks a major development in the Vatican’s long effort to bridge the divisions in Christianity.

In November 2014, Francis had said he had told Kirill: “I’ll go wherever you want. You call me and I’ll go.” Kirill will be in Cuba on an official visit at the time, his first to Latin America as patriarch.

In the joint statement, the churches said the meeting “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. They invite all Christians to pray fervently for God to bless this meeting, that it may bear good fruits.”

Metropolitan Illarion, foreign policy chief of the Russian Orthodox Church, told reporters on 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.

“Despite the existing ecclesiastical obstacles, a decision has been taken to hold a meeting between Patriarch Kirill and Pope Francis,” Illarion 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 cooperation 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 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 hopes of bridging 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’ 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 it had always been expected 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 onetime 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 dual 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, noted that Cuba is both well-known to the Russian Church as well as the Catholic Church, given that three different popes have traveled to the island in the span of 20 years.

“It’s a place that positioned itself well for the circumstances,” Lombardi said.

About two-thirds of the world’s Orthodox Christians belong to the Russian Orthodox Church, or about 200 million. The Catholic Church claims about 1.2 billion faithful.

About 75 percent 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 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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