Pope Francis, leader of the Roman Catholic Church and Patriarch Kirill, leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, will meet next week in Cuba, both churches announced Friday.
The February 12 meeting between Francis and Patriarch Kirill will be the first ever between the heads of the two churches and has been hailed by both denominations as an historic step toward healing the 1,000-year-old schism between the Western and Eastern branches of Christianity.
The Argentine-born pope is due to visit Mexico from February 12 to 18. He will stop in Cuba on the way and meet with the patriarch at Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport. Kirill will be in Cuba on an official visit, his first to Latin America as patriarch.
The summit was arranged by Cuban President Raul Castro, who hosted Francis in Cuba last year.
Francis and Kirill will talk privately for about two hours and then sign a joint declaration, the Vatican said, adding that the meeting is "a sign of hope for all people of good will."
Speaking to reporters about the significance of the meeting, the Vatican spokesman, Rev. Federico Lombardi said that “the event has extraordinary importance in the path of ecumenical relations and the dialogue among Christian confessions,” adding that Cuba was chosen because “it is certainly a crossroad in the world of today.”
"Cuba is a place which follows the theme of the past years when there was talk about a meeting between the pope and the patriarch - where the aim was always to hold it in a neutral place - so not in the Vatican or Russia but in a different location. Those who are familiar with Vatican history will know that there were many propositions in the past for a meeting between Pope John Paul II and the Russian patriarch, most likely to be held in Europe. Neutral places that would have significance for both parties were always considered as the venue for the meeting. Now, Cuba is of course outside Europe, which is an interesting aspect, but it is certainly a crossroads in the world of today," said Lombardi.
In November 2014, Francis had said he had told Kirill: “I will go wherever you want. You call me and I will go.”
Speaking at a press conference in Moscow, the Metropolitan of Volokolamsk Illarion said that long-standing differences between the two churches would remain, mainly a dispute over the Eastern Rite church in Ukraine that is allied with Rome, but they are put aside for Kirill and Francis to work together against the persecution of Christians in the Middle East.
The meeting of the primates of the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church “will mark an important stage in the relations between the two churches,”Illarion said.
"The meeting of the primates of Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches which have been prepared for a long time will become the first one in history and will mark an important stage in the relations between the two churches," said Illarion.
Roman Catholic popes have previously met with Istanbul-based ecumenical patriarchs of the Eastern Orthodox Church, which split with Rome in 1054, but not with the head of the Moscow Patriarchate, which is the most influential of the worldwide Orthodox churches.
The Russian Orthodox Church has 165 million of the world's 250 million Orthodox Christians.
The Russian Church has accused Catholics of trying to convert people from Orthodoxy after the break-up of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, a charge the Vatican has denied.