After 1,000-Year Split, Pope Embraces Head Of Russian Orthodox Church

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The three-hour meeting in the VIP room of Cuba’s Havana airport, two days ahead of Valentine’s Day, marks the first encounter in history between a Roman Catholic pope and a Russian Orthodox patriarch in the nearly 1,000 years since Eastern Orthodoxy split with Rome.

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The two church leaders kissed one another three times on the cheek. “Finally!” the pope exclaimed as he embraced Patriarch Kirill. Speaking through an interpreter, Kirill told the pope: “Now things are easier.”

“We spoke as brothers. We have the same baptism. We are bishops. We spoke of our Churches. We agreed that unity is created by journeying together,” Pope Francis told reporters and a gathering of Catholic and Orthodox clergy after the meeting.

Later, the two church leaders signed a joint declaration covering several topics, including Christian unity, the persecution of Christians in the Middle East as well as Africa and growing secularism in Europe. Excerpt from the declaration:

“We are concerned about the situation in many countries in which Christians are increasingly confronted by restrictions to religious freedom, to the right to witness to one’s convictions and to live in conformity with them. In particular, we observe that the transformation of some countries into secularized societies, estranged from all reference to God and to His truth, constitutes a grave threat to religious freedom. It is a source of concern for us that there is a current curtailment of the rights of Christians, if not their outright discrimination, when certain political forces, guided by an often very aggressive secularist ideology, seek to relegate them to the margins of public life.”

Al Jazeera‘s Natasha Ghoneim, reporting from Havana’s airport, said the meeting was seen as a step toward healing the 1,000-year-old rift between the two churches. The two churches split in the Great Schism of 1054 and have remained estranged over a host of issues, including the primacy of the pope and, more recently, Russian Orthodox accusations that the Catholic Church was poaching converts in former Soviet lands. Pope Francis previously played a role in rapprochement between the US and Cuba, which restored diplomatic relations last year after a 54-year break.

While Church officials insist that Patriarch Kirill’s historic meeting with Pope Francis is apolitical and meant to address the persecution of Christians in the Middle East, Russian media speculates that the meeting was actually a political mission to reduce the country’s isolation amid western sanctions over Ukraine and criticism for its Syria bombing campaign.

Analyst Alexei Makarkin told The Guardian that the main topic of the discussion – persecution of Christians in the Middle East – plays to the Russian president’s advantage and therefore the only reason the patriarch agreed to the meeting was because Putin wanted him to.

“Russia is now being criticized by the West and the Arab world for its position on Syria and so any societal forces that won’t condemn Russia are useful to it. The pope is not an ally of Russia, but his argument for the protection of Christians can be used by Russia to justify its campaign in Syria.”

Even as the meeting could be hailed as an important ecumenical breakthrough, it will be interesting to see whether Pope Francis will allow himself to be used by Russia eager to assert itself among Orthodox Christians at a time when the country is increasingly isolated from the West.

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Nathan Nicholson

I am 23 year old activist from West Virginia.

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