The persecution of Christians in the Middle East and Africa has brought together two unlikely allies: Pope Francis and the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill.
The two men will meet next week in Cuba in a historic step to heal the 1,000-year-old schism that divided Christianity between East and West. It will be the first ever meeting between the leaders of the Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches.
Long-simmering tensions over the primacy of the Pope and a host of other issues have remained unresolved since the two churches split during the Great Schism of 1054. Yet the mass killing, torture, and rape of Christians – both Catholic and Orthodox – in countries such as Syria and Libya has led the two churches to overcome their differences.
"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," Metropolitan Illarion, foreign policy chief of the Russian Orthodox Church, told the Associated Press on Friday. "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 meeting was announced jointly at the Vatican and in Moscow, the seat of the Russian Orthodox Church. It marks a major development in the Vatican's long effort to bridge the divisions in Christianity. The two leaders will meet at José Martí International Airport in Havana on Feb. 12, where they will sign a joint declaration, according to a joint statement.
While the meeting is an important step toward reconciliation, the metropolitan said there are still “ecclesiastical obstacles” between the Holy See and the Russian Church. He pointed to their opposing views on various Orthodox churches in western Ukraine as an example.
But the two sides appear willing to set aside their differences to address the worsening crises in the Middle East and Africa. As Christa Case Bryant reported for The Christian Science Monitor in 2013, “Christianity is under assault more than at any time in the past century.”
From Iraq, which has lost at least half of its Christians over the past decade, to Egypt, which saw the worst spate of anti-Christian violence in 700 years this summer, to Syria, where jihadists are killing Christians and burying them in mass graves, the followers of Jesus face violence and vitriol as well as declining churches and ecumenical divides. Christians now make up only 5 percent of the population of the Middle East, down from 20 percent a century ago.
The Vatican has long-standing relations with the Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I, who is considered "first among equals" within the Orthodox Church.
But the Russian Orthodox Church, which is the largest church in Orthodoxy and the most powerful, has always kept its distance from the Vatican. About two-thirds of the world's Orthodox Christians belong to the church.
This report includes material from The Associated Press.