Pope Francis and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill embraced and kissed each other on the cheek Friday before a historic meeting in Cuba that is the first rapprochement between the two churches in the nearly 1,000 years since Christianity split between East and West.
Despite a separation that dates back to the Great Schism of 1054, the Russian Orthodox Church had said that Islamic extremist attacks on Christian populations in the Middle East and North and Central Africa required urgent measures and closer cooperation between the Christian churches. That was the theme of the short meeting between the religious leaders at José Martí International Airport before Francis flew on for a week-long visit to Mexico.
“As we gather at a distance from the old quarrels of the Old World, we feel very strongly the need for collaboration between Catholics and the Orthodox, who must always be ready to answer everyone who asks for a reason for hope,” the two leaders said in a joint declaration after they met at José Martí International Airport.
In their message of reconciliation, which was issued in Russian and Italian, they said: “Our attention is directed primarily towards those regions of the world where Christians are persecuted. In many countries in the Middle East and North Africa, whole families of our brothers and sisters in Christ are killed, whole towns and cities inhabited by them are extinguished … their temples subjected to barbaric destruction and looting” and their sanctuaries and monuments demolished.
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They also decried the mass exodus of Christians from Syria, Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries — “the land where our faith began to spread” — and called for the international community to take immediate action to prevent more displacement of Christians in the Middle East and “to unite to end violence and terrorism” through dialogue in Syria and Iraq.
And finally they asked all Christians to pray “to save creation from destruction and not allow a new World War.”
“Finally,” exclaimed the pope when the two religious leaders met at the airport. “This is the will of God.”
“Now things are easier,” Patriarch Kirill told the pope through an interpreter.
The patriarch arrived in Havana on Thursday for the first leg of a 12-day visit that also takes him to Brazil, Chile and Paraguay, and Francis’ plane touched down Friday for a meeting that was nearly 1,000 years in the making.
Such a meeting had been a dream of Pope John Paul II and even before that the Roman Catholic Church had made overtures, but Russian Orthodox leaders remained suspicious. The main difference that led to the division with Rome was that the Eastern Churches didn’t accept the pope’s authority.
The meeting of the two leaders “signals Pope Francis’ ongoing commitment to ecumenical rapprochement with other Christian Churches,” said Rev. Jean-Pierre Ruiz, an associate professor at St. John’s University.
“In this troubling era, inter-religious dialogue is needed,” Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill said.
John Paul II had said that the Catholic Church must “breathe with two lungs” — rather than one lung for the Latin Rite and one for the Eastern Churches. Although he very much wanted an invitation to meet with Russian Orthodox Church leaders, he never got it.
Relations soured over the Russian Orthodox Church’s contention that Catholic missionaries were proselytizing in the Moscow Patriarchate and conflicts over church policy in the Ukraine where some Russian Orthodox believe the Eastern Churches, especially the Greek Catholic Church that follows Eastern rites but answers to the Holy See, is too pro-Western and anti-Russian.
In their statement, the two leaders said they hoped their meeting “will contribute to reconciliation where there are tensions between the Greek Catholics and the Orthodox.”
Cuba was chosen as neutral ground for the historic meeting.
“Pope Francis’ visit to Havana to meet with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow is a significant moment for his papacy and another big moment for Cuba,” said Peter Schechter, director of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center.
He noted that not only would the meeting be about reconciliation “after 1,000 years of separation between Europe’s largest Christian denominations,” but “it is also an enticing hint at both churches’ concern about the fate of Christian communities in the Middle East.”
During his time in Cuba, Patriarch Kirill plans to meet with both Raúl and Fidel Castro and will celebrate mass Sunday at Havana’s Russian Orthodox Church, Our Lady of Kazan, located in Old Havana near Cuba’s port.
Members of Our Lady of Kazan, as well as Cuban members of Havana’s Greek Orthodox Church, spent Thursday morning dusting religious objects, cleaning chandeliers and getting the church ready for the patriarch’s official visit.
Konstantine Marabian, a Moscow businessman who had come to Cuba to help get the church ready, was scraping paint off the steps of the church, which got a fresh coat of paint in preparation for the visit. “We would be very happy if the patriarch would be happy,” he said.
Our Lady of Kazan, which was completed in 2008, is a special place for Patriarch Kirill. He not only supervised construction of the church but also consecrated it.
The patriarch’s visit “is the most amazing blessing we can have,” said Helen Elizabeth, 20. She was baptized in the Greek Orthodox Church in 2004, but decided to help in the preparations after the Russian Orthodox Church reached out to her church. “We are brothers,” she said. “If they ask for help, we should help.”
“For the Cuban people, this is amazing. Two religious icons come here to Cuba,” said Ismael Stauvos, 23, who also is Greek Orthodox. “When the pope comes, it’s like God’s blessing.” Pope Francis last visited three Cuban cities — Havana, Holguín and Santiago — in September.
Ela Torres Oña, who works near Cathedral Plaza, remembered the celebratory feeling of the September visit when “the streets were full.” Friday was different as people went about their normal routines, but she considered the meeting of the two religious leaders a step toward peace and friendship and was happy Cuba was involved in the resolution of centuries-old conflicts.
Miami Herald special correspondent Spencer Parts contributed to this report.