Pope Francis To Meet With Leader Of Russian Orthodox Church In Cuba

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Pope Francis will meet in Cuba next week with the head of the Russian Orthodox Church in an effort to heal the 1,000-year-old schism that divided Christianity between East and West.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Now for news on historic talks. You might even call them peace talks. A week from today, Pope Francis will meet with the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kyril. It will be the first time the leaders of the two Christian faiths will meet, following a dispute that divided the churches more than a millennia ago. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli has the story.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: The meeting was announced by the Vatican in a surprise briefing. The announcement said that the meeting would take place in Havana, Cuba, next Friday. The Russian patriarch will be in Cuba on an official visit, and the Pope will make a previously unscheduled stopover on his way to Mexico for a six-day visit. Spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said the pope and patriarch will meet for a couple of hours and then sign a joint statement.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FEDERICO LOMBARDI: This meeting of the prime heads of the Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church after a long preparation will be the first in history and will mark an important stage in relations between the two churches.

POGGIOLI: Father Lombardi was asked just how important the event will be.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LOMBARDI: (Foreign language spoken).

POGGIOLI: "In the path of ecumenical relations and dialogue among Christians," Lombardi said, "this event is absolutely of extraordinary importance." In the past, popes had met with the Istanbul-based ecumenical patriarchs, but their roles are mostly symbolic. The much more powerful Russian Orthodox Church, representing two-thirds of the world's 225 million Orthodox Christians, has been estranged for centuries from Rome over key issues such as the primacy of the pope and Russian Orthodox accusations that Catholics poach converts in former Soviet territories. The Vatican spokesman did not reveal what finally broke the ice. But in Moscow, Metropolitan Hilarion, foreign-policy chief of the Russian Orthodox Church, was more forthcoming. He told reporters that despite continuing core disagreements, the plight of Christians in the Middle East and elsewhere, where he said they're facing genocide, demands urgent measures and even closer cooperation between the Christian churches. Next week's meeting between the two religious leaders may have wider geopolitical overtones. It will take place in Cuba, whose rapprochement with the United States was brokered by Pope Francis. Now it would appear that it was Cuban President Raul Castro who helped broker the Francis-Kyril ecumenical encounter. In his three years as pope, Francis has pushed for closer ties with the Russian Orthodox Church, which is very close to the Russian government of Vladimir Putin, by avoiding to criticize directly Russia's role in the Ukrainian conflict. And in another sign that the Argentine-born pope is emerging as a daring independent broker on the global stage, he signaled this week his desire for normalized diplomatic relations with China. In an interview with a Hong Kong online publication, he never mentioned religious freedom or human rights, but hailed China as a great nation that should not be regarded as a threat. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.