Pope Francis, Russian church leader hold historic meeting in Cuba

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Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill (L) and Pope Francis embrace in Havana, February 12, 2016. REUTERS/Max Rossi

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill (L) and Pope Francis embrace in Havana, February 12, 2016. REUTERS/Max Rossi

HAVANA (Reuters) Pope Francis and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill embraced and kissed in a historic meeting, uniting to issue a global appeal for the protection of Christians under assault in the Middle East.

Nearly 1,000 years after the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity split apart, the meeting on Friday (Feb. 12) at an airport terminal in Cuba was the first ever between a Roman Catholic pope and a Russian Orthodox patriarch.

“In many countries of the Middle East and North Africa whole families, villages and cities of our brothers and sisters in Christ are being completely exterminated,” they said in a joint declaration in apparent reference to violence by militant groups such as Islamic State.

“Their churches are being barbarously ravaged and looted, their sacred objects profaned, their monuments destroyed.”

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They also said large-scale humanitarian aid was required to tend to refugees fleeing Syria and Iraq, lamenting the “massive exodus of Christians.”

Defending Christians from the Islamic State and other enemies is a cause dear to both the pope and patriarch, and a chief reason behind this visit, which was not expected to make headway in resolving the theological differences between the two sides.

Cuban President Raul Castro stood to the side during the ceremony, enjoying another moment in the international limelight after receiving Francis last year and restoring diplomatic relations with the United States recently, meeting President Barack Obama in Panama in April.

Cuba is also sponsoring peace talks between the Colombian government and leftist rebels seeking to end a 50-year war.

“If it continues this way, Cuba will be the capital of unity,” Francis said.

“Now what’s left is Colombia,” Castro told reporters after the pope boarded his plane for Mexico, where Francis arrived on Friday evening for a five-day visit to some of the poorest and most violent corners of the country.

Dissidents in Cuba’s one-party political system have remarked on the government’s willingness to promote dialogue for foreigners while dismissing political opponents as mercenaries doing the bidding of the United States.


The two religious leaders, guests of a Communist government, came together only a week after the encounter was announced. Such a meeting had eluded their predecessor, but Francis had issued a standing invitation to meet anytime, anywhere.

The moment came while Kirill was visiting the Caribbean island and Francis added a brief stop on his way from Rome to a long-scheduled visit to Mexico.

Francis, dressed in white with a skullcap, and Kirill, wearing a tall, domed hat and white stole over black robes, joined arms and kissed on both cheeks when they met inside the terminal.

“Finally,” Francis said as he and Kirill entered through doors on opposite sides of a room at Havana airport. “We are brothers.”

“It is very clear this is the will of God,” the pope said.

“Yes, things are much easier now,” Kirill told Francis.

Their meeting carried political overtones, coming at a time of Russian disagreements with the West over Syria and Ukraine.

The Russian Orthodox Church is closely aligned with the Kremlin, which is in turn an ally of Cuba.

The Argentine pontiff helped the rapprochement between the United States and Cuba after more than five decades of estrangement.

The pope, leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, is seeking to repair a much longer rupture. Eastern Orthodoxy split with Rome in 1054.

FULL TEXT: Joint Declaration of Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill

Kirill arrived in Havana on Thursday and was also greeted by Castro, an ally of Russia who also received Francis in Cuba just five months ago.

The Argentine pontiff previously played a role in rapprochement between the United States and Cuba, which restored diplomatic relations last year after a 54-year break.

Now the pope is seeking to repair a much longer rupture.

Eastern Orthodoxy, based in what was then Constantinople — modern-day Istanbul in predominantly Muslim Turkey — split with Rome in 1054. The patriarch of Constantinople is considered the “first among equals” among all the Orthodox churches, which are largely based in Eastern Europe and the Middle East and are often organized by nationality and culture.

In 1964, Pope Paul VI met Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople in Jerusalem, a historic meeting during which they formally lifted the anathemas that had sealed the ancient schism. Francis has also met with the current Constantinople patriarch, Bartholomew.

But mutual suspicion between Rome and Moscow, as well as the complications of the Cold War, had prevented any meeting between the Russian church leader and the Roman pontiff.

Although the Russian patriarchate was recognized by Constantinople just over 400 years ago, today the Russian church counts some 165 million of the world’s 250 million Orthodox Christians and it wields and influence and independence in proportion to those numbers.

That’s why observers say this summit in Havana was especially momentous.

Kirill is on a longer stay in Cuba than Francis and will visit Cuba’s small Russian Orthodox Church, built between 2004 to 2008 and attended by Russian holdovers from the decades of Soviet influence in Cuba.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has supported the Russian church, which in turn has backed Kremlin foreign policy, most notably in Ukraine and the Middle East.

Putin has also improved relations with Cuba, which were strained following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

(Reuters with additional reporting by RNS)

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  • ben in oakland

    900 plus years of bickering, not to mention that little unpleasantness called the Sack of Constantinople, And what was the first order of business?

    Denouncing gay people for (gasp!) marrying!!!

    And how did they justify that? “the concept … of man and woman in marriage is being banished from the public conscience.” Oh, pope, dear? NO IT IS NOT. And if it is, it is because those sacred heterosexuals have decided to so banish it. Nothing to do with us. We’re only4%.

    Meanwhile, the pope has child abuse problem that doesn’t seem to get resolved, no matter how many commissions they appoint to think about it. Meanwhile, there is Zika, which evil condoms could prevent. We likes our microcephalous babies.

    Meanwhile, Kirill wears a very expensive watch, and is in bed– in a manly sort of a way, of course– which the corruption, militarism, (other people’s) wealth gathering, and suppression of civil rights in Russia.

    Such moral fortitude.

  • Daniel Berry, NYC

    Yes isn’t it good that these two gay guys found time to get their digs in at gay folks.

  • G Key

    Although our beliefs differ, Cindyrella, I wholeheartedly agree with you about people who embrace “being mean and sharp tongues”.

    It’s a shame that so many of our leaders (and would-be leaders) participate in, rather than protest against, meanness and hostility.

    And it’s sobering that so many followers cheer these leaders on, dismissing the obvious (and productive) virtues of courtesy, civility, diplomacy, empathy, consideration, and respect — not to mention professionalism — as if these eminently proven and venerably traditional virtues were detestable vices of “political correctness”.

    Only a very few years ago, people across the country came together to stand up to bullying. Today, half the people champion it, and the other half tolerate it in silence.

    I wish more people, religious and otherwise, would loudly oppose it.

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  • Dr. Cajetan Coelho

    God is love. Peace comes through contact with God and with others.

  • Chris

    It’s unimaginable religious teachers these days don’t point out the gravity of the seven deadly sins; it’s as if hellish sentences have been abolished due to some mysterious concession.

  • G Key

    Personally, I think it’s way beyond creepy that some people obsess over the sex lives of others — and consider themselves “righteous”.

    It’s bad enough that these 2 Papas geld their own sheep in public.
    At least those sheep can leave for better pastures if they choose.

    But trying to get sovereign governments to do the same thing to people who don’t even go to their church?

    There’s gotta be a psychiatric term for that.

  • G Key

    Peace comes through respecting other people’s personal boundaries, including their equally rightful bodies, beliefs, bedrooms, and business.

    Peace comes through holding only ourselves to our own beliefs, and subjecting only ourselves to our own faiths’ demands.

    Peace comes through choosing humility over hubris, invitation over inquisition, and coexistence over conquest.

    Peace comes through realizing that we don’t deserve more say-so over their fully equal lives than they do over our merely equal ones.

    Peace comes through unconditional application of the Golden Rule.

  • Billysees


    Beautifully written, especially —

    Peace comes through unconditional application of the Golden Rule.

  • Billysees

    Joint statement — …expressing their “regret” that opposite-sex marriage is “being banished from the public conscience.”

    What an utterly stupid comment. Thought Francis would have better sense.

    Kirill sounds like other, typical, lovers of the religious and political right wing by reportedly saying that LGBTs are responsible for undesirable weather phenomenon.

    Here are good reasons not to trust their contributions to the Christian faith —

    1. …our [church] knowledge is partial and incomplete
    2. …we [churches] see things imperfectly…
    3. …All that I [any church] know is partial and incomplete…
    (1 Corinthians 13:9,12)
    4. You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how will it be made salty again? It is good for nothing anymore, except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men…..Matthew 5:13

  • Ben in oakland