Pope meets Russian church head in historic encounter

(From far left) Pope Francis, Patriarch Kirill and Cuban President Raul Castro at Havana's international airport on Friday.
(From left) Pope Francis, Patriarch Kirill and Cuban President Raul Castro at Havana's international airport on Friday.PHOTO: REUTERS

They stress need for unity and call for an end to conflicts in the Middle East

HAVANA • Pope Francis has become the first pontiff to ever meet a patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, as the two Christian leaders set aside centuries of division in a historic encounter that was held in an unlikely setting: a room at the Havana airport.

Having announced the meeting only a week ago, the Pope landed in Cuba's capital Havana around 2pm on Friday, for a stopover that lasted a few hours before he continued to Mexico for his six-day visit there.

Awaiting him in Havana was Patriarch Kirill, who was making an official visit to Cuba at the invitation of President Raul Castro. As he approached the patriarch amid the clicking of cameras, the Pope was overheard saying, "Brother". A moment later, he added: "Finally."

The two men embraced, kissing each other twice on the cheeks and clasping hands before taking seats. "Now things are easier," the patriarch said. The Pope responded, "It is clear now that this is the will of God."

The meeting was richly symbolic: Pope Francis, 79, leader of the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, stood with Patriarch Kirill, 69, leader of the largest church in the Eastern Orthodox world, with an estimated 150 million followers.

But it was also about geopolitics, rivalries among Orthodox leaders and, analysts say, the manoeuvrings of President Vladimir Putin of Russia - who is closely aligned with the Russian church.

For the Pope, the meeting was an ecumenical and diplomatic coup that eluded his predecessors but that also opened him to criticism that his embrace of the Russian patriarch would indirectly give a boost to Mr Putin as he wages a war in Syria and meddles in Ukraine.

In Moscow, the media made little effort to hide the government's role in enabling the historic encounter. In an editorial last week, Vedomosti, a business newspaper, said: "The meeting would not be possible if the interests of the Russian Orthodox Church did not coincide with those of the Kremlin."

The Cuban setting met the demands of the Russian side for a "neutral" meeting place while dovetailing with the Pope's trip to Mexico.

The two religious leaders met with aides in a private room at Jose Marti International Airport. In a joint declaration released afterwards, they called for an end to the conflicts raging in the Middle East and for an end to the persecution of Christians in the region, "the land in which our faith was first disseminated and in which they have lived since the time of the Apostles, together with other religious communities".

Addressing the schism between their religions, the two also declared: "It is our hope that our meeting may contribute to the re-establishment of this unity willed by God." For decades, the Vatican has sought a meeting with the Russian patriarch as popes tried to heal the rifts between the eastern and western branches of Christianity.

Analysts note that Mr Putin could have blocked the meeting but apparently concluded it could burnish his global standing and undermine Western efforts to isolate Russia with sanctions after the Ukraine conflict. He has sought to portray Russia as a defender of beleaguered Christians in the Middle East, including in Syria as he props up the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

Patriarch Kirill is trying to burnish his image at home after corruption scandals swirling around church property. He is also projecting himself as a global Orthodox leader in the face of rivalry from Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, spiritual leader of Orthodox Christianity, said Professor Aristotle Papanikolaou of New York's Fordham University.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 14, 2016, with the headline 'Pope meets Russian church head in historic encounter'. Print Edition | Subscribe