By Andrew Roth and Brian Murphy February 5 at 10:24 AM
MOSCOW — Pope Francis and the leader of the powerful Russian Orthodox Church plan a historic meeting next week in Cuba, officials said Friday, marking the most significant steps ever attempted to heal a schism that has divided Christianity between East and West for nearly 1,000 years.
The meeting — the first between a pope and Russian patriarch — would culminate decades of overtures for closer dialogue. The churches have been formally estranged since the 11th century over issues such as papal authority and, more recently, by disputes over Roman Catholic reach into traditionally Orthodox regions.
The planned encounter next Friday between Francis and Patriarch Kirill I at Havana’s airport also highlights apparent moves toward greater solidarity amid current worries. Among them: pressures facing ancient Christian communities in the Middle East from militant groups such as the Islamic State.
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Even the venue carries significance. Cuba, which once suppressed the Roman Catholic church as a Soviet client state, was picked because the legacy of Christian rifts remains too vivid in Europe, a Russian church official said.
A full reconciliation would require major changes on both sides, but warmer ties sanctioned by the highest authorities would represent one of the biggest modern shifts in the world’s religious landscape.
The Russian Church is by far the largest and most influential in the Orthodox world, which is a patchwork of various churches and patriarchs.
At the planned meeting — scheduled for José Martí International Airport — the two leaders are expected to sign a joint declaration. The details, however, were not immediately disclosed.
Francis will fly to Cuba before traveling on to Mexico for a six-day tour of the country.
Patriarch Kirill is scheduled to arrive next Thursday in Havana for an 11-day tour of South America, which will also include stops in Paraguay, Chile, and Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo in Brazil.
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“This meeting of the Primates of the Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church, after a long preparation, will be the first in history and will mark an important stage in relations between the two Churches,” said a joint press release.
“The Holy See and the Moscow Patriarchate hope that it will also be a sign of hope for all people of good will. They invite all Christians to pray fervently for God to bless this meeting, that it may bear good fruits,” it added.
The meeting would cap decades of outreach seeking to bridge suspicions and rifts that span both historical and contemporary grievances, which have so far blocked any papal visit to Russia.
Among the obstacles that have complicated deeper dialogue are long-held claims by Moscow that the Roman Catholics have been seeking to expand Rome-affiliated churches in traditional Christian Orthodox areas.
Eastern Rite churches, which retain Orthodox traditions but are loyal to the Vatican, have been among the thorniest issues blocking attempts to heal the divisions between the world’s more than 1 billion Roman Catholics and more than 200 million Orthodox.
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Although Catholics and Orthodox remain estranged on other issues — including married clergy and the centralized power of the Vatican — there have been significant moves over the generations toward closer interactions and understanding.
The first major breakthrough came in 1964 when Pope Paul VI met in Jerusalem with Patriarch Athenagoras I, then the ecumenical patriarch, known as the “first among equals,” or nominal leader of the Orthodox churches.
It was the first encounter between a pope and an Orthodox patriarch in more than 500 years. The meeting led to the lifting of mutual excommunication edicts and the Catholic-Orthodox Joint Declaration of 1965 that called for greater harmony among the churches.
An apostolic letter by John Paul II in 1995 encouraged unity between the two branches of Christianity and opened the way for a historic visit to Rome by the current ecumenical patriarch, Bartholomew I.
In 2001, Pope John Paul II made a landmark trip to mostly Orthodox Greece and issued an apology for the ravages of the Fourth Crusade, which in the early 13th century sacked Constantinople, now Istanbul, the seat of the Eastern church.
In 2006, Pope Benedict XVI was hosted by the Bartholomew in Istanbul in a visit that brought protests from some archconservative Orthodox but cleared the way for more exchanges.
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The relationship between the two churches also has been influenced by secular politics.
Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, a senior Russian church leader, told reporters that the patriarch did not want to meet the pope in Europe because of its links “to the sad history of the division and conflicts between Christians.”
But the patriarch agreed to Cuba, he continued, because of conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere where “an authentic genocide of the Christian population by extremists requires immediate measures and closer cooperation between the Christian churches.”
The remarks from the church official dovetailed, as they often do, with the Kremlin’s portrayal of the conflict in Syria as one between the legitimate government of President Bashar al-Assad and extremist militias. When Russia began airstrikes last year in Syria to back its ally Assad, Patriarch Kirill called the effort “a holy battle.”
Discussions on a meeting between the pope and the patriarch had been held as far back as 1996, when church officials drew up plans and a joint statement to be signed by Pope John Paul II and Patriarch Alexy II in Hungary.
But the negotiations collapsed because of disagreements about the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, an Eastern Rite church that the Moscow patriarchy complained was proselytizing in its traditional sphere of influence.
Those concerns were reignited during the 2014 Maidan revolution in Ukraine, when the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church sided with the protesters, angering the Moscow patriarchy and the Kremlin.
At the same time, Pope Francis has been careful not to wade into the conflict. However, he angered Ukrainian protesters by calling the conflict in that country a “civil war,” a term that supporters of the new government believe obscures Russia’s role in the conflict.
“I think it’s fair to say that the Vatican has been very careful in its references to Ukraine,” said Andrei Zolotov Jr., a writer on religion and the executive editor in Europe for Russia Direct, a political journal focusing on Russia. “The Vatican has made calls for peace, said it is praying for peace, but not taking sides.”
Previous pontiffs, meanwhile, have been appraised with a possibly harsher eye by the Kremlin. The Polish-born John Paul II directly challenged the former Soviet Union during the early years of his papacy. His successor, Benedict, was often seen through the prism of his former role as the Vatican’s chief overseer of Catholic doctrine.
Murphy reported from Washington. The Associated Press contributed to this report.