Pope Francis and the head of the Russian Orthodox Church will meet in Cuba next week in what could be a landmark step towards healing the 1,000-year-old rift between the Western and Eastern branches of Christianity.
The Vatican and the Moscow Patriarchate announced on Friday that Francis will stop in Cuba on Feb. 12 on his way to Mexico to hold talks with Patriarch Kirill, the first in history between a Roman Catholic pope and a Russian Orthodox patriarch.
There, they will appeal for an end to persecution and killing of Christians in the Middle East, the Russian side said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has aligned himself closely with the Russian Orthodox Church, making the meeting in Cuba not just a religious event but politically charged as well, especially when Russia is at odds with the West over Ukraine and Syria.
Modern popes have met in the past with the Istanbul-based ecumenical patriarchs, the spiritual leaders of Eastern Orthodoxy, which split with Rome in 1054. Those patriarchs play a largely symbolic role, while the rich Russian church wields real influence because it counts some 165 million of the world's 250 million Orthodox Christians.
The Vatican said the leaders would hold several hours of private talks at Havana airport, deliver public speeches and sign a joint statement.
The meeting was brokered by Cuban President Raul Castro, who hosted the pope in Cuba last year. The Vatican helped arrange the rapprochement between Cuba and the United States.
Such a meeting eluded Francis' two immediate predecessors, Benedict and John Paul, who both tried but failed to reach agreement with Kirill and previous patriarchs to hold talks on the prospects for eventual Christian unity.