By Carlos Batista
Havana (AFP) - Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill arrived on Thursday in Cuba, where he will sit down with Pope Francis in the first meeting of its kind since the historic 11th-century church schism.
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That meeting, set for Friday afternoon, will be the first of its kind since Christianity split into Western and Eastern branches in 1054.
It is Kirill's fourth visit to Russia's Cold War Latin American ally Cuba, but his first as patriarch, overall head of the powerful Russian Orthodox church.
"I am visiting Cuba for the fourth time with very warm feelings. I have come here on a visit of friendship," the white-bearded patriarch said in a short speech after arriving on a Russian government plane.
"The Russian and Cuban people are united by many years of collaboration, cooperation and friendship," he added.
"I wish the Cuban people well."
Francis makes a short stopover in Havana on Friday on his way to Mexico for an official visit.
Pope Francis on February 10, 2016 at the Vatican (AFP Photo/Alberto Pizzoli)
Kirill's 11-day trip will also take him to Paraguay and Brazil.
"This will be a long and difficult journey," the patriarch said in Moscow before leaving. "It requires spiritual and physical strength."
- Historic Orthodox-Catholic meeting -
The Russian church said their meeting would focus on the persecution of Christians around the world and that a joint declaration would be issued.
"This historic meeting clearly marks a new stage in our relations," the Orthodox Church's spokesman Alexander Volkov said Tuesday.
He said it was not political and could open "new prospects" for cooperation between the two branches of the church.
A meeting between the two religious leaders has been on the cards for some time, with Francis saying in 2014 he was willing to meet Kirill "wherever you want. You call me and I'll come."
Cuban president Raul Castro (L) welcomes Patriarch Kirill (C), upon his arrival at Jose Marti Intern …
Relations between the two churches have been frosty for centuries because of the legacy of the Great Schism of 1054 and the recriminations and mutual excommunications that followed.
The Orthodox Church's refusal to accept the primacy of the Roman pontiff has long been the primary barrier to a rapprochement. But more recently, relations have been strained by the fallout from the conflict in Ukraine.
A close ally of President Vladimir Putin, the patriarch has fervently backed Moscow's military action abroad.
The patriarch denounced the "anti-Russian" policies of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, an Eastern rite church that recognizes the pope and is a source of friction between Moscow and the Vatican.
- Meeting Fidel Castro -
Kirill was due to meet on Friday morning with Cuba's atheist president before the pope's arrival in the afternoon.
On Sunday, Kirill will hold a mass in the Our Lady of Kazan Orthodox cathedral, which he consecrated in 2008.
He was expected to meet with Cuba's former president Fidel Castro, 89, the revolutionary leader who handed the presidency to his brother Raul, 84, in 2008 due to ailing health.
The patriarch was also due to visit a school for children with disabilities, attend a concert and lay flowers at a Soviet memorial in Havana.
Cuba hosted Russian personnel during the Cold War and is currently home to some 3,000 Orthodox worshippers.
They are outnumbered in the former Spanish colony by Roman Catholics, Protestants and practitioners of African-rooted cults.
The Cuban state is officially secular.
Fidel Castro has said that Kirill "is not the enemy of socialism. He does not condemn to eternal fire those of us who use Leninist Marxism as a basis to fight for a just world."