Barely six months after his first visit to Cuba, where he was lauded for helping to engineer the historic detente between Havana and the US, Pope Francis is returning Friday for yet another diplomatic triumph.
In a private reception room inside Havana’s airport, the pontiff is to meet the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia, in the first such encounter between the western and eastern branches of Christianity in nearly 1,000 years.
Though the meeting is not expected to have an immediate impact on the relationship between the two churches, it is seen as an important first step toward addressing both their shared interests and outstanding divisions. Both see themselves as protectors of ancient Christian communities in the Middle East that are under siege from the so-called Islamic State and other extremists. And each have stakes in Ukraine, where Greek Orthodox Catholics allied with Rome are at odds with Russian Orthodox believers who recognize the Moscow patriarch.
“We’ve been trying for this for years. It seemed almost impossible, so this is really great news," said Walter Kasper, a German cardinal who is regarded as being particularly close to Pope Francis. "In a terrible global situation – from Syria and the Middle East to the crisis between Ukraine and Russia – it’s important that the two churches find a dialogue.”
Protecting Mideast Christians
The churches formally split during the Great Schism of 1054, when Constantinople (now Istanbul) became a rival religious power base to Rome. Suspicion and mistrust has characterized relations ever since.
Now Pope Francis, the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, will sit down with Patriarch Kirill, who has around 150 million Orthodox Christian followers. They are expected to sign a joint declaration and exchange gifts, presided over by Raoul Castro, the Cuban president.
It took two years to arrange the encounter, Vatican officials said – a reflection of how strained relations between the two churches have been.
The Orthodox Church is highly touchy about the activities in Ukraine of the Greek Catholic Church, which is aligned with Rome. The Russians see the offshoot of Catholicism as an interloper in a region that is largely under their canonical sway.
The two sides also disagree sharply over the issue of the primacy of the pope – the Russian Orthodox Church does not accept the authority of the pontiff in Rome.
But those divisions have been put aside, for now at least, in order to address a shared concern – the persecution of Christians in the Middle East.
"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," said Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, who is in charge of the Russian Orthodox Church’s external relations. "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."
Chad Pecknold, professor of theology at the Catholic University of America, says: “Persecution of Christians, especially in the Middle East and places like Syria where Orthodox Christians have been run out, is sure to be discussed. Expect some comment about Christian persecution and unjust regimes, which could have an edge to it in the Cuban context.”
Putin and the pope
The encounter also reflects a tentative political alignment between the pope and Russia.
In 2013, when President Obama mulled taking military action in Syria in support of moderate rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad, both Francis and Russian President Vladimir Putin were vocal opponents of the plan.
Now, with Moscow laboring under trade sanctions imposed by the West in retaliation for its annexation of Crimea and interference in Ukraine, a warming of relations between the Vatican and the Russian Church could help ease Russia's isolation.
The fact that the Orthodox Church is closely backed by Mr. Putin also makes Friday’s encounter politically charged. Last month the patriarch, a Putin ally, defended Russia’s military action in Syria as a "defensive war" to protect Russia from terrorism.
As befits the role he has established as a builder of bridges, the pope said this week that he was eager to meet his Orthodox counterpart.
“I just wanted to meet and embrace my Orthodox brothers,” he told Corriere della Sera, an Italian daily, in a front-page interview. "You have to build bridges, step by step – up to the point where you can shake the hand of the person on the other side. Bridges last, and they help build peace.”
The election of Kirill in 2009 also helped pave the way for the reconciliation. Before his appointment he had been the head of the Russian Orthodox Church’s department for relations with other churches, where he was regarded as being more open to warmer ties with Rome than his predecessors.
“This is something that the Vatican has been trying to pull off for a long time. It’s the first step in a long process,” says Robert Mickens, a Vatican analyst. “These are churches that have been in dialogue since the Second Vatican Council [a reformist initiative in the 1960s] and Kirill has been part of that."
Though healing a millennium-old division would burnish the record of Pope Francis, it is built on more than five decades of reconciliation efforts. Francis' predecessors, including John Paul II and Benedict XVI, worked to improve relations not only with the Orthodox world but also with Jews, says Prof. Christopher Bellitto, a historian of the Church at Kean University in New Jersey. “Francis is in great continuity with an agenda of reconciliation that dates back to Pope John XXIII, 50 years ago. Having said that, this is still a very, very important step.”
A Cuban connection
Cuba is a natural host for the meeting, as it is neutral territory in which both sides have a stake.
It was staunchly Catholic until the revolution of the 1950s, after which became an atheist state. It then developed close ties with Moscow, a collaboration that brought the world close to nuclear war in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.
Practically, Cuba as the venue makes sense too. The patriarch is on a pre-arranged official visit to the island, while the pope will be making a stopover as he travels to Mexico for a week-long visit which was planned last year.
“The fact that they are meeting in Cuba is serendipity, a terrific coincidence,” says Professor Bellitto. “When there’s a wellspring of good will such as you have under Francis, people are more open to unexpected moves like this.”