Pope, Russian Orthodox patriarch "like brothers" in historic meeting

Pope Francis and the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, discussed religious and political affairs during a historic meeting Friday in Cuba to overcome a rift that had lasted over 1,000 years.

"We talked like brothers," Francis said alongside Kirill at the end of a meeting that lasted more than two hours inside Havana's international airport.

Television images showed Francis and Kirill exchanging hugs and kisses and smiled at the start of their meeting.

Afterward, the Roman Catholic pontiff said the encounter was candid and the two men agreed on a few initiatives and signed a joint declaration that spoke of preventing further displacement of Christians in the Middle East. 

"We call upon the international community to act urgently in order to prevent the further expulsion of Christians from the Middle East," the joint declaration said.

Francis and Kirill expressed "compassion for the suffering experienced by the faithful of other religious traditions who have also become victims of civil war, chaos and terrorist violence."

"Thousands of victims have already been claimed in the violence in Syria and Iraq, which has left many other millions without a home or means of sustenance. We urge the international community to seek an end to the violence and terrorism and, at the same time, to contribute through dialogue to a swift return to civil peace," the text said.

Kirill and Francis called for "large-scale humanitarian aid" to help all those affected by the conflict.

Theological differences between Rome 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. The meeting between Kirill and Francis was historic in that context.

"By meeting far from the longstanding disputes of the 'Old World', we experience with a particular sense of urgency the need for the shared labour of Catholics and Orthodox," the declaration said.

"Interreligious dialogue is indispensable in our disturbing times," the text said.

Francis praised Kirill for his "fraternal humility and his good wishes for unity."

"We can work together to protect Christianity throughout the world," Kirill said.

Kirill arrived late Thursday in Havana to start a Latin American trip that was to take him on to Brazil, Chile and Paraguay. Francis stayed in Cuba for just over three hours, en route to a six-day tour of Mexico.

"It is a demanding journey, very packed but much desired by brother Kirill, by me and also by the Mexicans," the pontiff told reporters on his flight to the Americas, according to the Vatican's press office.

"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 had said in a joint statement last week, when they announced the encounter.

After meeting with Kirill, Francis thanked Cuban President Raul Castro for his "active availability."

"If you carry on like this, Cuba will be the capital city of unity," Francis told Castro.

The leader of communist Cuba, himself an atheist, is believed to have close ties with the pope. Francis helped broker the restoration of ties between Washington and Havana after a rift that lasted more than half a century. Castro has made a contribution to ongoing efforts for peace in Colombia.

Francis represents the world's 1.25 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.

Given the close links between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Kremlin, the meeting in Cuba was seen as an indirect Vatican overture to President Vladimir Putin, amid Moscow's international isolation over Syria and Ukraine.

Orthodox Christians are themselves split among more than a dozen churches, who will hold their first-ever summit in June in Crete, Greece. Improving intra-Orthodox ties is a prerequisite to the long-term objective of healing the 1054 rift.

Last update: Sat, 13/02/2016 - 12:41
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