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A first in 1000 years: Pope meets Patriarch

In a historic visit to bridge a 1000-year rift, Pope Francis met the head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Cuba on Friday.

Pope Francis, right, and Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill during their meeting at the Jose Marti International airport in Havana. Pope Francis landed in Cuba Friday for the first-ever papal meeting with Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, a historic development in the 1,000-year schism within Christianity. Photo: AP

During a three-hour stop in Havana, Pope Francis embraced Patriarch Kirill and with an exclamation of “finally” and took a momentous step toward closing a nearly 1,000-year schism in split Christianity.

The two religious leaders signed a 30-point joint declaration of religious unity that committed their churches to overcoming their differences. Pope Francis tweeted that the meeting was a “gift from God.”

Why did they split?

The Catholic and Orthodox churches split in the Great Schism of 1054 and have remained estranged over a host of issues, the oldest one being the primacy of the pope.

The Russian Orthodox Churh accused that the Catholic Church was poaching converts in former Soviet lands. These tensions have prevented previous popes from meeting with the Russian patriarch, even though the Vatican has long insisted that it was merely ministering to tiny Catholic communities.

The most vexing issue in recent time centers on the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, the country’s second-largest, which follows eastern church rites but answers to the Holy See. The Russian Orthodox Church has considered western Ukraine its traditional territory and has resented papal influence there.

The politics behind religion

The Pope-Patriarch meeting carried political overtones, coming at a time of Russian disagreements with the West over Syria and Ukraine.

The Russian Orthodox Church is closely aligned with the Kremlin, which is in turn an ally of Cuba. The Argentine pontiff helped the rapprochement between the United States and Cuba after more than five decades of estrangement.

The pope, leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, is seeking to repair a much longer rupture.

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