Pope Francis to meet with Russian Orthodox patriarch in Cuba

Pope Francis celebrates a mass for nuns and priest, in St.Peter's Basilica, at the Vatican, Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2016. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

VATICAN CITY (AP) – Pope Francis and the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church will meet in Cuba next week in a historic step to heal the 1,000-year-old schism that divided Christianity between East and West, both churches announced Friday.

The meeting between Francis and Patriarch Kirill will be the first ever between the leaders of the Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches.

Francis is due to travel to Mexico Feb. 12-18. He will stop in Cuba on the way and meet with Kirill on Feb. 12 at the Havana airport, where they will sign a joint declaration.

The two churches split during the Great Schism of 1054 and have remained estranged over a host of issues, including the primacy of the pope and Russian Orthodox accusations that the Catholic Church is poaching converts in Russia.

Those tensions have prevented previous popes from ever meeting with the Russian patriarch, even though the Vatican has long insisted that it was ministering to the tiny Catholic community in largely Orthodox lands.

In November 2014, Francis had said he had told Kirill. “I’ll go wherever you want. You call me and I’ll go.”

The meeting, which was announced jointly at the Vatican and in Moscow, marks a major development in the Vatican’s long effort to bridge the divisions in Christianity.

In the joint statement, the two churches said the meeting “will mark an important stage in relations between the two churches. The Holy See and the Moscow Patriarchate hope that it will also be a sign of hope for all people of good will. They invite all Christians to pray fervently for God to bless this meeting, that it may bear good fruits.”

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