Vatican City: Pope Francis will make a surprise trip to Cuba on February 12 for a historic meeting with the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, the first meeting between a pope and the Russian patriarch since the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity split nearly 1000 years ago, the Vatican announced Friday.
For Pope Francis, the meeting is the result of delicate and sustained diplomacy, some of which began decades ago under Pope John Paul II, and it is another important milestone in his efforts to reconcile the Roman Catholic Church with Eastern Orthodox churches.
The breakthrough also highlights Pope Francis' ties to Cuba, as President Raul Castro "was involved in organising the meeting", said the Reverend Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, at a news conference.
"The encounter has been under preparation for a long time - it wasn't improvised," Reverend Lombardi said.
He said discussions had been under way "for at least two years", and the fact that both leaders planned to be in Latin America created the possibility of a "neutral place" for a meeting.
Pope Francis was already planning to travel to Mexico next Friday for a six-day visit. Now, his plane will stop at Jose Marti International Airport in Havana, where the Pope and Patriarch Kirill I, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, are expected to hold a private, two-hour meeting.
The two men will then release a joint declaration before Pope Francis continues to Mexico City. Patriarch Kirill was already scheduled to be in Cuba for an official visit.
The pace of reconciliation between Russia, the largest country in the world, and the Vatican, the smallest, has been swift. The two agreed to establish formal diplomatic relations only at the end of 2009, and President Vladimir Putin of Russia met Pope Francis in June 2015 in what was seen as a break of Russia's isolation from the West over the crisis in Ukraine.
Since the beginning of his papacy in 2013, Pope Francis has worked to reconcile divisions in Christianity that trace to the Great Schism of 1054, which formally divided the Eastern and Western churches. Pope Francis already has ties to other Orthodox leaders, especially with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, considered the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians.
But the Russian Orthodox Church has long resisted overtures from the Vatican. John Paul II tried but failed to arrange a meeting with its leaders, and his successor, Pope Benedict XVI, also did not meet the patriarch.
Much of the friction seems to have been the product of a territorial dispute, as Russian Orthodox leaders have accused the Roman Catholic Church of proselytising in Russia and Ukraine, effectively encroaching on Orthodox turf.
Even in announcing the meeting, the Russian Patriarchate said in a statement on its website that differences over church policy in Ukraine remained a "bleeding wound".
A joint statement expressed delight over the meeting, calling it "an important stage in relations between the two churches". Both parties hoped the event will be seen as "a sign of hope for all people", the statement said.
The Russian church also cited in its statement the persecution of Christians in the Middle East and Africa as an incentive to try to heal past divisions.
"It is necessary to put aside internal disagreements and unite efforts for saving Christianity in the regions where it is subjected to the most severe persecution," the statement read.
Alberto Melloni, a Vatican historian, also noted that the Cuba meeting has meaningful geopolitical implications, because it comes at a time when US and European diplomats are working to isolate Russia.
The Russian church is closely aligned with the Russian government, Mr Melloni said, and the meeting with the Pope would have required permission from Mr Putin. Signing off on the meeting allows the Russian president to show the different avenues he can use to avoid isolation, Mr Melloni said.
"For Putin, it is a good result," he said. "It is very geopolitical."
Pope Francis is proving to be an ambitious, diplomatic actor on the world stage. He helped broker the reconciliation between the United States and Cuba, and won the regard of Mr Castro, the Cuban president. Mr Castro, in turn, helped arrange plans for the meeting next week.
Pope Francis is also moving aggressively to complete another long-held Vatican goal - the restoration of diplomatic ties with China. Pope Francis has spoken of his desire to become the first pope to visit mainland China.
This week, Pope Francis used an interview with Asia Times, an English-language online publication in Hong Kong, to convey his greetings for the Lunar New Year and to offer reassurances that a rising China should not be regarded as a threat.
"For me, China has always been a reference point of greatness," Pope Francis said in the interview. "A great country. But more than a country, a great culture, with an inexhaustible wisdom."
New York Times