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.

Related stories

The Great Schism between Catholics and Orthodox

Christians worldwide celebrate Easter

Latest news

Syrian opposition rules out future role for President al-Assad

The Syrian opposition said Friday it would not accept any role for President Bashar al-Assad in the future of the war-torn country, reacting to a recent US shift saying that removing al-Assad is no longer a priority for Washington.

Russian Army integrates breakaway forces of Georgian province

Parts of the small fighting forces of the Georgian breakaway province of South Ossetia have been placed under Russian military control, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said on Friday.

Czech Republic's Pilsner Urquell beer is now Japanese

Japanese brewing company Asahi completed its takeover of the Czech brewery Pilsner Urquell on Friday, Asahi said in a statement.

Judge approves 25-million-dollar settlement of Trump University case

A US district judge on Friday approved a 25-million-dollar settlement of lawsuits and state fraud allegations against Trump University, the US president's now-defunct business venture.

Former Thai premier Thaksin to junta on reconciliation: 'Cut me out'

Former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra on Friday announced that he is not interested in the junta-led reconciliation process, three days after the junta handed him a half-a-billion-dollar tax bill for his past business deal.

Dalic: We welcome possible deal between Agrokor and banks

The government welcomes the possibility of an agreement being concluded between the Agrokor food company and creditor banks, and the bill on vitally important companies is not a fallback plan but the result of the government's care for the overall economic and financial stability of Croatia, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Economy Martina Dalic told a press conference in Zagreb on Friday.

Croatia, China sign action plan for cooperation in agriculture

The Croatian and Chinese ministries of agriculture on Friday signed an action plan for cooperation in the field of agriculture for the period 2017-2018, the Croatian ministry said in a statement.

ZSE indices up, Agrokor shares in focus of investor interest

The Zagreb Stock Exchange (ZSE) indices on Friday rose by more than 1.8%, with stocks of the Agrokor food and retail concern being in the focus of investor interest again.

Berlin police defend handling of Berlin market attacker

Berlin police defended themselves on Friday against accusations that they stopped surveillance on Berlin Christmas market attacker despite knowing in June 2016 he was dangerous.

Croatia, creditors tailor emergency measures to save tottering giant

Croatia's tottering retail and food giant Agrokor reached an agreement with its creditors, putting its debts standby and allowing it to continue working during emergency restructuring, the Croatian branch of Austria's Erste Bank said Friday.

Agrokor's creditors say standstill agreement to go into force today

A standstill agreement regarding the Agrokor concern's existing financial obligations to banks will take effect on Friday, additional capital will be injected into the concern in the coming days and the concern will be actively restructured, which includes a change of its management, it was said on Friday after a meeting between Agrokor's suppliers and creditor banks.

Palestinians, UN slam Israel's new settlement plan

Palestinians, Israeli activists and the UN lambasted the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday, a day after it gave the go-ahead for the first new West Bank settlement in a quarter of a century.

South Sudan rebels release three abducted foreign oil workers

South Sudanese rebels have released three foreign engineers they abducted in early March in the oil-rich Upper Nile region, Foreign Affairs Ministry official Mawein Makol Arik said on Friday.

Turkish opposition: Imprisoned party chief has gone on hunger strike

The head of Turkey's pro-Kurdish opposition party has launched a hunger strike from prison.

European leagues threaten Champions League schedule clashes

The European Professional Football Leagues (EPFL) on Friday threatened schedule clashes on Champions League matchdays in an ongoing dispute with the governing body UEFA.

Danish court revokes citizenship of IS volunteer

A Danish appellate court on Friday stripped a man of his Danish citizenship for volunteering to fight for the extremist Islamic State in Syria.

Banks and Agrokor agree on key elements of standstill agreement

Member banks of the coordinating committee of financial creditors and representatives of the Agrokor food company have in principle agreed on key elements of a standstill agreement, which is expected to be signed later today, announcing changes in the company's management team, Erste Bank said in a statement on Friday afternoon.

Syrian man on trial in Sweden; mosque attack labelled terrorism

A Syrian man went on trial Friday in the southern Swedish city of Malmo, charged with terrorism and arson after an attack last year on a building used as an assembly hall by Shiite Muslims.