Russian patriarch arrives in Cuba before pope meeting

11th February 2016, Comments 0 comments

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill arrived on Thursday in Cuba where he will sit down with Pope Francis in the first meeting of its kind since the historic 11th-century church schism.

Kirill, 69, was greeted by Cuba's communist President Raul Castro at Havana airport, where the Russian church leader was due to meet with Francis on Friday, AFP reporters witnessed.

The meeting, set to take place on Friday afternoon, will be the first of its kind since Christianity split into Western and Eastern branches in 1054.

"This will be a long and difficult journey," Kirill said in Moscow before leaving on his 11-day trip, which will also take him to Paraguay and Brazil.

"It requires spiritual and physical strength."

A meeting between the two religious leaders has been on the cards for some time, with Francis saying in 2014 he was willing to meet Kirill "wherever you want. You call me and I'll come."

Relations between the two churches have been frosty for centuries because of the legacy of the Great Schism of 1054 and the recriminations, including mutual excommunications, that followed.

The Orthodox Church's refusal to accept the primacy of the Roman pontiff has long been the primary barrier to a rapprochement but more recently relations have been strained by the fallout from the conflict in Ukraine.

A close ally of President Vladimir Putin, the patriarch has fervently backed his military action abroad.

During the war in Ukraine, the patriarch repeatedly denounced the "anti-Russian" policies of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, an Eastern rite church that recognizes the pope and is a source of great friction between Moscow and Vatican.

© 2016 AFP

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