Pope, patriarch hold historic meeting

Heart-to-heart in Havana:Pope Francis (left) and the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, greet each other at the Jose Martí airport in Havana, Cuba, on Friday. For the Pope, the meeting was an ecumenical and diplomatic coup that eluded his predecessors.— Photo: AFP  

: Pope Francis on Friday became 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, Pope Francis landed in Havana about 2 p.m., for a stopover expected to last a few hours, before he continued to Mexico City for his six-day visit to Mexico. 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 Russian patriarch amid the clicking of news cameras, Pope Francis was overheard to say, “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,” Patriarch Kirill said. Pope Francis responded, “It is clear now that this is the will of God.”

Symbolic meeting

The meeting was richly symbolic: Pope Francis, leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, stood with Patriarch Kirill, 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 conservative Russian church.

For Pope Francis, 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 continues to meddle in Ukraine.

In Moscow, the Russian news media made little effort to hide the government’s role in enabling the historic encounter. In an editorial this 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 was the result of months of negotiations, abetted by Mr. Castro. It met the demands of the Russian side for a “neutral” meeting place while dovetailing with Pope Francis’ trip to Mexico.

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 say Pope Francis, who has made deepening ecumenical ties a centrepiece of his papacy, was able to achieve a meeting because of a complex confluence of factors.

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

IS on agenda

AP reports:

The religious leaders also called on leaders to act on the single most important issue of shared concern between the two churches today— the plight of Christians in Iraq and Syria who are being killed and driven from their homes by the Islamic State group.

“In many countries of the Middle East and North Africa, entire families of our brothers and sisters in Christ are being exterminated, entire villages and cities,” a 30-point joint declaration they signed said.