Max Rossi / Reuters

Millennium after split, pope and Russian patriarch meet in Cuba

Event marks the first encounter in history between a Roman Catholic pope and a Russian Orthodox patriarch

Pope Francis and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill embraced and kissed in Cuba on Friday in a historic meeting nearly 1,000 years after the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity split apart.

"Finally," Francis said as he and Kirill entered through doors on opposite sides of a room at Havana airport to begin private talks. "We are brothers."

The two religious leaders, guests of a Communist government, addressed ways of healing the rift between their Churches as well as their concerns over the persecution of Christians in the Middle East.

Francis, dressed in white with a skullcap, and Kirill, wearing a tall, domed hat that dangled a white stole over black robes, joined arms and kissed on both cheeks.

"It is very clear that this is the will of God," Francis said.

"Yes, things are much easier now," Kirill said. Both men spoke through interpreters and were accompanied by their top aides in the quest for Christian unity, Cardinal Kurt Koch and Russian Metropolitan Hilarion.

During their meeting, Francis and Kirill signed a joint declaration on religious unity.

"In many countries of the Middle East and North Africa whole families, villages and cities of our brothers and sisters in Christ are being completely exterminated," they said in the joint declaration in apparent reference to violence perpetrated by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

"Their churches are being barbarously ravaged and looted, their sacred objects profaned, their monuments destroyed."

Their meeting, announced just a week ago, also carried political overtones, coming at a time of Russian disagreements with the West over Syria and Ukraine.

Cuban President Raul Castro and Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the Catholic Church's highest representative in Cuba, greeted the pope as he got off the plane.

Kirill arrived in Havana on Thursday and was also greeted by Castro, an ally of Russia who received Francis in Cuba just five months ago.

The Argentine pontiff previously played a role in rapprochement between the United States and Cuba, which restored diplomatic relations last year after a 54-year break.

Now the pope, leader of the 1.2 billion member Catholic Church, is seeking to repair a much longer rupture. Eastern Orthodoxy split with Rome in 1054, and today the Russian church counts some 165 million of the world's 250 million Orthodox Christians.

Kirill, on a longer stay, will also visit Cuba's small Russian Orthodox Church, built between 2004 to 2008 and attended by Russian holdovers from the decades of Soviet influence in Cuba.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has supported the Russian church, which in turn has backed Kremlin foreign policy, most notably in Ukraine and the Middle East.

Putin has also improved relations with Cuba, which were strained following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Wire services

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