HAVANA – Pope Francis landed here Friday for an unprecedented encounter with the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, a meeting that bridged a nearly 1,000-year rift in Christianity but whose focus was expected to be the current turmoil in the Middle East.
The brief talks between the pontiff and Patriarch Kirill – as they crossed paths at Havana’s airport – marked the first meeting between the religious leaders of the Vatican and Moscow since an 11th century Christian schism over papal authority and other disputes.
Francis’s Alitalia jet landed just before 2 p.m. at Havana’s José Martí International Airport, and the pope was received on the tarmac by Cuban President Raúl Castro, who walked with him into the terminal for the meeting. There were no public statements.
The cramped, decrepit airport terminal in communist-run Cuba was a highly improbable setting for the encounter between Francis and Kirill, two religious leaders in flowing vestments who preside over empires of architectural splendor.
“We are brothers. That is God’s will,” news agencies quoted Francis as telling Kirill as they greeted each other warmly, exchanging three kisses on the cheek. “I have the impression we are meeting at the right place, at the right time,” Kirill told the pontiff, Russia’s Interfax news agency reported.
Cuban state television showed images of the two men seated beside one another in a dark wood-paneled room, with a large crucifix on the wall behind them.
The Cuban venue for the meeting fit Francis’s view of the island’s importance. During a visit in September, he called Cuba a “key” between “north and south, east and west,” and “a point of encounter for all peoples to join in friendship.”
The meeting Friday between Francis and Kirill has several political dimensions.
For the Vatican, the moment culminates decades of overtures to the Russian church. It also could open greater channels with Moscow over the humanitarian fallout from Middle East conflicts, including the flood of refugees into Europe and ravages against ancient Christian communities and their sites by Islamist militants, such as the Islamic State.
On Sunday – with an eye toward the upcoming meeting with Kirill – the pope decried the bloodshed in “beloved Syria,” where Russia has carried out airstrikes to aid the government of President Bashar Assad.
The United States, Russia and other powers agreed Friday to a “cessation of hostilities” in Syria’s civil war within the next week, as well as humanitarian access to besieged areas. But the pact also leaves room for continued Russian air attacks.
Moscow could view the patriarch’s meeting with Francis as a chance to display Russia’s role in the Middle East and seek stronger bonds with the Vatican at a sensitive time.
Russia faces increasing pressures from the West over flash points, such as Ukraine, where Moscow annexed the strategic Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and backs pro-Russian separatists battling the government in Kiev. Meanwhile, Russia has denounced NATO plans to expand forces in Europe.
“To have [the pope], with his internationally recognized authority, not as a critic but as an ally or at least simply as a neutrally silent figure, is highly attractive to Putin and his associates,” wrote Yury Avvakumov , an assistant professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame, who specializes in Eastern church affairs.
Vatican contacts with the Orthodox world are not new.
Pope John Paul II – who once praised the East by saying the church must “breathe with two lungs” – made landmark trips to Greece and other mostly Orthodox nations. He also held groundbreaking talks with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, who is based in Istanbul and is considered the spiritual head of the patchwork of highly autonomous Orthodox churches and patriarchs.
But the Russian church is by far the most powerful in terms of size, influence and wealth. Its backing for dialogue could begin reshaping the Christian landscape in profound ways.
Chances for a “full and organic reconciliation” between the churches are extremely remote at the moment, said the Rev. Paul McPartlan, a Catholic University professor who has taken part in Catholic-Orthodox dialogue since 2005.
“But this is a step, what I would call a moment of grace,” said McPartlan. “When that happens, other things can flow.”
The fundamental issues of the millennia-old break still loom large: the power of the papacy and other theological splits. In recent decades, another point of friction was added over Orthodox accusations of Roman Catholic reach into traditionally Orthodox regions, such as Ukraine and Belarus, through Vatican-affiliated churches.
Such differences with the Vatican could still block a quest that has eluded the Holy See: an invitation for a papal visit to Russia. Even just arranging the airport encounter took two years of “secret negotiations” by bishops, Francis was quoted as saying in an interview with Italy’s Corriere della Sera newspaper.
Instead, a planned joined declaration Friday may stick to easier ground, such as appeals for Middle East peace and aid for threatened Christian communities, some of which date back to the early centuries of the faith.
The meeting has received heavy coverage on Russia’s state-run television networks, a reliable mirror of what authorities want to show their citizens. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called it a “mutual step to meet each other halfway.”
The backdrop of Cuba – far from quarrels in Europe – also has resonance.
It gives the Argentine-born Francis, en route to Mexico, an opportunity to showcase his Latin American roots and the reemergence of the Catholic Church on the island, a former Soviet satellite that in recent years has rekindled ties to Moscow. Francis visited Cuba in September before making his first trip to the United States.
Kirill, who is on a tour of Cuba and South America, looks to project Russian influence in the region, including construction of a major Orthodox church in Havana despite relatively few followers. He arrived in Havana on Thursday, where he was received by Castro, 84, and the patriarch was also expected to meet separately with 89-year-old former president Fidel Castro, who stepped down in 2006. On Sunday, Kirill will celebrate Mass at Havana’s Russian Orthodox Church.
Francis was scheduled to depart Havana at approximately 4:30 p.m. and continue on to Mexico City to begin a six-day visit to the world’s second-largest majority-Catholic nation after Brazil.
In what is perhaps the most anticipated event of his trip to Mexico, Francis on Wednesday will celebrate a large public Mass in Ciudad Juarez, right along the U.S. border, in a speech expected to highlight the plight of the world’s migrants and refugees. Francis will also visit the southern state of Chiapas, one of Mexico’s poorest, as well as the crime-ravaged state of Michoacan, a notorious drug cartel battleground.