papa franjo.jpg
Photograph: EPA/ALESSANDRO DI MEO

Pope Francis and the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, will hold an unprecedented meeting next week, billed as a major advance towards healing a 1,000-year-old rift between Catholics and Orthodox Christians.

The talks will take place on February 12 in Cuba, where Francis will make a stop on the way to a visit to Mexico, and where Kirill was already expected as part of a Latin American pilgrimage, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said Friday.

"This meeting [...] will be the first in history and will mark an important stage in relations between the two Churches," the Holy See and the Patriarchate of Moscow said in a joint statement.

It described the planned encounter as "a sign of hope for all people of good will."

A meeting between a pope and a Moscow patriarch had been mooted at least since the time of John Paul II, who led the Catholic Church 1978-2005. Lombardi said Kirill and Francis' planned encounter took two years to organize.

The Russian Patriarchate was once at odds with the Vatican over what it saw as attempts by the Catholic Church to seek converts on Russian territory. Lombardi mentioned past "polemics" without elaborating, but said old obstacles had been overcome.

The two men will hold private talks at Havana airport for about two hours, and will then make speeches and sign a joint declaration in the presence of Cuban President Raul Castro, the Vatican spokesman told reporters.

Holding the talks in Cuba, a Communist country which the pope visited in September after contributing to its historic rapprochement with the United States, is a bit like "playing on home turf," Lombardi quipped.

Francis represents the world's 1.2 billion Catholics, while Kirill is in charge of the largest church in the Orthodox community, with about 150 million followers in the post-Soviet world.

The Russian Orthodox Church has experienced a significant revival since the collapse of the officially atheist Soviet regime two decades ago, and is aligned with the authoritarian regime of President Vladimir Putin.

The Russian government has granted it funds for theological projects that promote patriotism and instated a controversial 2013 ban on insulting religious beliefs. Patriarch Kirill has described the Putin era as a "miracle from God."

Theological differences between Vatican and Moscow can be traced to the Great Schism of 1054, when Christianity split between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, primarily over the issue of papal authority.

Francis is already on friendly terms with another major Orthodox leader, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, with whom he has met several times.

Last month, the pontiff announced plans to travel to Sweden on October 31 in another symbolic gesture towards Christian reconciliation. There he will commemorate the birth of Protestantism, a Christian faith which broke away from the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century, mainly out of disgust for Vatican corruption.

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