MOSCOW - Russia's Catholic minority has welcomed an historic first meeting this Friday in Cuba between the Pope and the Patriarch of Russia's dominant Orthodox Church.
There are an estimated 1.2 billion Roman Catholics in the world, but in Orthodox Russia there are around 700,000, only half of one percent of the population. In contrast, three out of four Russian citizens identify themselves as Orthodox Christians.
While a small minority, Russia's Catholics are voicing a loud welcome to a historic first meeting in Cuba between Pope Francis and the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill.
Father Kirill Gorbunov is a spokesman for the Mother of God Roman Catholic Archdiocese in Moscow.
“I feel that this is an answer to our prayers,” he told VOA. “Of course, we were hoping that it would take place in Moscow."
Ekaterina Bozhenova, a Russian Orthodox believer and housewife, says she supports any meeting that proves beneficial.
“That the meeting is not happening in Europe, where things are difficult, inappropriate, ambiguous — that it is in Cuba — I welcome that,” she added.
But there are no illusions that the talks, to take place at the Havana airport, can somehow heal the thousand-year-old rift from when the Orthodox Church split with Rome in 1054.
Politics, both church and state, have been driving the tenuous relationship in the centuries since.
Catholics were subjugated during Soviet times with church properties seized by the state and given to the Orthodox Church.
After the Soviet Union broke apart, the Catholic Church took back properties in Ukraine and incurred the wrath of Moscow. Catholics still face prejudice as a foreign influence under a resurgent Russia in conflict with the West.
“They say, 'What are they doing here? They do not belong here,’” says Father Gorbunov. “They belong to Italy, they belong to Spain, to Europe.’ But Catholics are everywhere, and also here.”
Elena Baranova, a Russian Catholic and translator attending mass in Moscow, says the historic meeting between church leaders shows improving relations.
"Of course I do not think the churches will unite like a kind of utopia, but I think there will be some cooperation,” she said. “We are seeing it already."
“Because even now it seems the Orthodox Church has become better intentioned,” she added, “not just the church but the Russian authorities as well.”
Attacks against Christians
Russia's Patriarch had refused the Vatican's previous offers for talks because of the property disputes in Ukraine. But the Orthodox Church says increasing global attacks against Christians compelled them to put aside differences.
Russia’s Interfax news agency quoted Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov as saying the meeting was a "mutual step halfway" between Russia and the Western world.
Russia's ambassador to the Vatican, Alexander Avdeyev, told Russia’s TASS news agency “in conditions of Western sanctions, the meeting of the two church leaders is a confirmation of the Christian civilizational role of Russia.”
Political analysts say President Vladimir Putin has a mutually beneficial relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church, giving vocal and financial support to its traditional values and getting the Church’s vocal support in return. Orthodox Church leaders have faced heavy criticism in the past for cozying up to the Kremlin and covering up conspicuous wealth among church leaders.
The Patriarch-Pope meeting is in line with President Vladimir Putin's efforts to reach out to conservative leaders in the West who are less critical of Russia.
Putin met in June with Pope Francis in Rome where the two discussed persecution of Christians in the Middle East as well as peace and humanitarian efforts in Ukraine. The pope made no critical public comments about Russia’s actions. His labeling of the Ukraine conflict as “fratricidal” irked many Ukrainians as it failed to recognize what Kyiv and many Western government see as Russia’s military aggression against its neighbor.
“So, it is an attempt to find a 'better West' than the West of globalization, tolerance, and current political leaders,” says the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Alexander Baunov.
Putin wants also to work on a legacy, says Baunov. And, with increasing criticism of the Kremlin's actions in Syria, this historic meeting can only help.
Mark Grinberg contributed to this report.