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Russian Orthodox, Roman Catholic churches’ leaders to meet for first time in history

The pope is expected to arrive in Havana airport at 14:00 local time and his conversation with Patriarch Kirill is expected to start in 15 minutes there
Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill EPA / GIORGIO ONORATI, Mikhail Metzel / TASS
Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill
© EPA / GIORGIO ONORATI, Mikhail Metzel / TASS

HAVANA, February 12. /TASS/. The heads of the Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches will meet Friday for the first time in history.

Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia and Pope Francis will sit down to the negotiating table in the hall of Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport and will sign a joint declaration.

Meeting details

The pope is expected to arrive in Havana airport at 14:00 local time (22:00 Moscow Time, 19:00 UTC) and his conversation with Patriarch Kirill is expected to start in 15 minutes there. The spiritual leaders will speak to journalists before the meeting and after it. The conversation will be held in a closed regime for about two hours.

The patriarch and the pope will speak their native languages (Russian and Spanish) with the help of two interpreters. One of the interpreters will be Lithuanian priest Visvaldas Kulbokas. Kulbokas is in diplomatic service in the Vatican and he is known to have worked as an interpreter at the pontiff’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in June 2015.

The signing of a joint declaration is set for 16:30 local time (21:30 UTC), and it is to be followed by public statements of the two churches’ leaders. Chairman of the Russian Orthodox Church’s Department of External Church Relations Metropolitan Hilarion said prior to the patriarch’s departure from Moscow to Havana that "the text of the declaration was being coordinated by the sides until late yesterday evening [February 10]."

"Now it is to be hoped that the document will be presented in the coordinated form at the meeting with the pope," the metropolitan said, noting that "the text of the declaration could however be changed."

The declaration will be distributed in four languages. The contents of the document is kept secret yet. Only the general topic of the meeting - persecutions of Christians in the Middle East and other regions - has been mentioned.

After the signing, the sides will exchange gifts. President of the Council of State and President of the Council of Ministers of Cuba Raul Castro is expected to attend that final stage of the meeting. The ceremony to see off the pontiff is set for 17:10 local time (22:10 UTC).

Island of Freedom as neutral territory

The venue of the meeting has been discussed for the past few years, but Patriarch Kirill was originally against any sites in European countries. "Because the difficult history of separations and conflicts between Christians is connected with Europe," Metropolitan Hilarion said. He also said the meeting became possible due to coincidence of dates of the Latin American tour by the patriarch and the visit to Mexico by the pontiff.

Neither Russia, nor the Vatican were considered as the venue for the meeting between the pope and the patriarch. "Cuba suits everyone, it’s the part of the region that develops dynamically," the metropolitan said, noting that it is "neutral" territory.

Beyond church walls

The hall of Havana airport was specially equipped for the patriarch-pontiff meeting. The meeting is being organized with participation of Raul Castro, at whose invitation the head of the Russian Orthodox Church is visiting Havana.

Chairman of the Synod’s department for relations of the church with society and media Vladimir Legoyda said "Russia’s state authorities did not take part in the talks on organization of the forthcoming historic meeting." Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov also said the Kremlin had not taken part in the meeting’s preparation.

The meeting was deliberately organized beyond religious facilities, and no joint rites will be performed. Metropolitan Hilarion said in particular that the churches’ leaders will not read any joint prayers. Besides, no dogmatic topics will be discussed at the meeting.

Union is the stumbling block

The key problem in relations between the two churches and obstacle for the two Primates’ meeting has been union (merger of the Orthodox and Roman Catholic faiths). The activity of Uniates in Ukraine has considerably complicated relations between the churches.

Destruction by Uniates of three sees of the Moscow Patriarchate in Western Ukraine in 1980-1990, the transfer of the center of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC) from Lvov to Kiev, the church’s insistent desire to have the status of a Patriarchate, the UGCC’s mission’s expansion to traditionally Orthodox lands of Eastern and Southern Ukraine, support by Uniates of schismatics - all these factors have only compounded the problem, Metropolitan Hilarion explained.

"The situation has deteriorated even more as a result of the recent events in Ukraine, in which representatives of the UGCC were directly involved speaking with anti-Russian and Russophobic slogans," he said.

"Unfortunately, the problem of union has not been removed by now, and union remains an open bleeding wound hindering full normalization of relations between the two churches," Metropolitan Hilarion said.

Persecution of Christians is the meeting’s key issue

"The issue of persecutions of Christians will be central at the meeting," the metropolitan said.

He explained that the situation in the Middle East, in North and Central Africa and some other regions, where extremists are involved in real genocide of Christian population, requires urgent measures and closer interaction between Christian churches.

"In the current tragic situation, it’s necessary to move aside internal disagreements and unite efforts to save Christianity in regions where it is persecuted in a cruel way," Metropolitan Hilarion said.

Patriarch Kirill and Pope Francis are also expected to touch upon urgent issues of bilateral relations and international policy. They will discuss universal Christian and human values, the role of the Church in preserving the traditional institutions of family and marriage, the fight against such vices as drug addiction and alcohol abuse. The Russian Orthodox Church hopes the meeting will open a new page in relations between the two churches.

20 years to prepare

Preparation for the meeting has taken 20 years. Back in 1996-1997, intense talks on organization of a meeting in Austria between Patriarch Alexy II and Pope John Paul II were being held. The talks were halted due to differences. First of all, this related to the activities of Greek Catholics in Ukraine and proselytism of Catholic missionaries on the canonical territory of the Moscow Patriarchate.

"At the same time, the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church has never rejected the very possibility of organizing such a meeting in the future, when there are required conditions for its holding," Metropolitan Hilarion said.