Pope Francis and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill will hold an unprecedented summit meeting Cuba next week. According to a statement released by the Russian church, the main topic of discussion will be the "persecution of Christians." This meeting will be the first meeting of the heads of the two churches since the separation of the two in the 11th century. The pope and patriarch will meet at Havana’s international airport, where they will sign a joint declaration. Patriarch Kirill will in Cuba on an official visit while Pope Francis will be on a stopover at the Cuban capital.
The two churches said in a joint statement that the meeting would "mark an important stage in relations between the two churches." The two churchmen calls on "all Christians to pray fervently for God to bless this meeting, that it may bear good fruits." Indeed, since he became leader of the Catholic Church in 2013, Pope Francis has called for better relations between the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity.
Pope Francis greets Metropolitan Ilarion
A sticking point that prevented earlier attempts by previous popes to meet in Eastern Europe with the Patriarch was that Russian clerics have always suspected that it is Rome's secret intention to prosyletize among Orthodox Christians in traditionally Orthodox lands. Critics of the Russian church have long suspected that there are deep ties between the Russian Orthodox clergy and the Soviet and Russian governments that ensued after the fall of the Tsars nearly 100 years ago.
But at issue now is the survival of the Christian faith in the Middle East – the region that bore witness to the ministry of Jesus Christ and the birth of the Christian faith. The terrorist Islamic State has destroyed Christian churches, monasteries, and homes in an effort to blot out the presence of Christians in the region, in addition to its campaign of rape, murder and forced conversion.
There are considerable differences between the Roman Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church. For example, Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Illarion told reporters that are differences over their respective jurisdictions in western Ukraine. The Russian Orthodox Church asserts that western Ukraine is its traditional territory and resents any papal authority over Christians there. In Ukraine, as elsewhere in the East, there are Christians who are in union with the Roman papacy but who adhere to Eastern Christian liturgical rites and spirituality. Among them are the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and the Ruthenian Greek Catholic Church. The Russian Orthodox Church, with the cooperation of the Soviet Union decades ago, seized seminaries, churches and properties of these Byzantine-rite Catholic churches and has yet to relinquish them.
However, events in the Middle East have prompted the Russian Orthodox Church to action. Russian President Vladimir Putin has also spoken of what he considers Russia’s duty to protect Christians in the conflictive region. Metropolitan Illarion said that event there had pushed the leaders to meet. Illarion said, "The situation in the Middle East, in northern and central Africa and in other regions where extremists are perpetrating a genocide of Christians, requires immediate action and an even closer co-operation between Christian churches.” He added, "In this tragic situation, we need to put aside internal disagreements and pool efforts to save Christianity in the regions where it is subject to most severe persecution."
Patriarch Kirill has been the head of the Russian Orthodox Church since February 2009.
The Roman Catholic Church has more than a billion members worldwide, while the Russian Orthodox Church numbers about 165 million. The other Orthodox churches claim jurisdiction over Christians in whole countries such as Bulgaria, Greece, and Romania. They are separate and do not agree on the primacy of the Pope of Rome. While the Roman Catholic Church and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Istanbul enjoy close relations and have exchanged visits, the coming reunion in Havana will be the first between a Pope and a Russian Orthodox patriarch in history. The Russian church is the largest church in Orthodoxy.
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