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A long-awaited embrace

HAVANA (SE): The embrace that Christianity has waited over 1,000 years to see became a reality on February 12 in a hangar at José Marti Airport in Havana, Cuba, as Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow put their arms around each other in a reconciliatory gesture.

The two described their historic greeting as an end to a millennium of division due to human weakness and sin, contradicting  Christ’s prayer that they may be one.

The pope and the Russian Orthodox leader had a two-hour tête a tête in what was not only an historic first, but an important encounter in salvation history.

Although Vatican watchers had been predicting the long awaited meeting would take place in Havana for some time, official notice came surprisingly late, just one week prior to what was a history-making event.

The choice of Cuba as the venue for the encounter may seem coincidental, as Patriarch Kirill was on a pastoral visit to the country and Pope Francis on route to near-by Mexico, but as the meeting point of the old and new worlds, as well as being the spot on the globe where what was then the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the United States of America, or the west, narrowly averted a devastating war in 1962, it also has historical significance.

“It is from this island, the symbol of the hopes of the New World and the dramatic events of the history of the 20th century, that we address our words to all the peoples of Latin America and of the other continents,” the two said in their joint declaration.

“By meeting far from the longstanding disputes of the Old World, we experience with a particular sense of urgency the need for the shared labour of Catholics and Orthodox, who are called, with gentleness and respect, to give an explanation to the world of the hope in us (cf. 1 Peter 3:15), the declaration says.

However, first ever encounters of popes and patriarchs do not take place on a whim. Why now is a most important question, as 20 years ago Pope John Paul II and Patriarch Alexi II were on the cusp of a meeting which was cancelled at the last minute for reasons that have never been disclosed.

Unsettled issues continued to plague possible get-togethers; the accusation that Catholics were proselytising among the Russian Orthodox being one of them and the other, seemingly more mundane but involving money, the possession of Church properties in the Ukraine.

In 1596, what had been the Ukrainian Greek Orthodox Church returned to communion with Rome and became the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. 

But it was suppressed by Joseph Stalin in 1946 and went underground, remaining that way for 45 years until the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991.

Since then, there have been disputes over ownership of churches that were Catholic prior to 1946.

However, in the last 20 years a long process of musical and gift-exchange diplomacy has painstakingly been pursued by the Vatican and Moscow.

It has involved the return of a much cherished icon by Pope John Paul II of the Blessed Mother of Kazan, which was revered in Russia as the icon of the protection of the homeland.

But why now still remains a question, as a millennium has passed since the tragic 1054 split that divided the Catholic and Orthodox Churches and 20 years have meandered since leaders of the two Churches almost met.

Vatican watcher, Robert Moynihan, says that the most probable reason is the war in the Middle East, with its persecution of Christians and other minority groups, which both the European Union and Pope Francis have described as being genocide.

Russian troops are currently in Syria, defending their nation’s important ally, Bashar al-Assad. 

Worryingly, reports say that Turkish troops are also massing on the border of Syria and any clash between the two could well lead to Russian casualties.

Turkey is also a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), which puts its political alignment on the wrong side of the fence for Russia.

Patriarch Kirill is known to be close to the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, and his influence in the country could help alleviate more bloodshed.

In their declaration, Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill say, “It is with pain that we call to mind the situation in Syria, Iraq and other countries of the Middle East, and the massive exodus of Christians from the land in which our faith was first disseminated and in which they have lived since the time of the apostles, together with other religious communities.”

Secularisation, protection of life from conception to natural end, family, marriage and young people are also included in the declaration, as predicted in an interview on Vatican Radio with Father Hyacinthe Sestivelle, from the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, who accompanied Pope Francis to Havana.

The Russian-speaking Dominican stressed, “It will not be a theological assessment. The role of this meeting is in the frame of the dialogue of charity.”

Metropolitan Hilarion told the Russian media, “It is necessary to put aside internal disagreements and unite efforts for saving Christianity in the regions where it is subjected to the most severe persecution.”


The two religious leaders say, “Mindful of the permanence of many obstacles, it is our hope that our meeting may contribute to the re-establishment of this unity willed by God, for which Christ prayed. May our meeting inspire Christians throughout the world to pray to the Lord with renewed fervour for the full unity of all his disciples.”

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