Conflict

How the Middle East brought Eastern and Western Christianity together again — in officially atheist Cuba

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, left, and Roman Catholic Pope Francis, right, met in Cuba Friday — a historic moment for the religions they represent, which have been at odds for 1,000 years.

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, left, and Roman Catholic Pope Francis, right, met in Cuba Friday — a historic moment for the religions they represent, which have been at odds for 1,000 years.

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Left: Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters; right: Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters

Cuba was the setting for what could be a reconciliation nearly a millennium in the making: Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church and Pope Francis of the Roman Catholic Church met in Havana's Jose Martí Airport Friday morning.

It's the first time leaders from both Christian sects met since the Great Schism of 1054.

And it's conflict in the Middle East — where the Christian religion began — that brings the leaders to Cuba, which after its communist revolution was known for being officially irreligious.

The pope and the patriarch discussed how to collaborate to protect Christians being persecuted in the Middle East.

This kind of cooperation hasn't happened before "because there's so much distrust between the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches," says Tim Padgett, Americas editor at WLRN Public Media, and contributor to Catholic publication America Magazine.

"And that distrust has only now, in recent decades, begun to thaw," like the distrust between the US and Cuban governments started thawing in late 2014.

The Western Hemisphere's most politically isolated island has been at the center of three reconciliation events in the past two years: rapprochement talks in Panama between Cuban President Raúl Castro and President Barack Obama; Pope Francis' first visit to the island, where he preached forgiveness, alluding to US-Cuba relations; and this meeting between leaders of two ancient, similar, but theologically dissenting, religions.

It was convenient for the patriarch to meet the pope as Francis stopped in Cuba on his way to Mexico. And it's neutral religious ground for the clergymen, despite Russia's long-standing political connections to Cuba. BBC Mundo reported that although a number of Cubans identify as Catholic, there's a minority Orthodox population on the island as well.

Their meeting taking place in Havana's airport "symbolizes the stopover nature of this," Padgett says, "that it's really just sort of a brief encounter."

"It's going to take many, many years to create more unity on the theological issues," Padgett says. "But I think that they've realized they can start building more unity on these kinds of issues, like protecting Christians in the Middle East, that could lead then to better understanding on the more abstract religious and theological differences."

The Eastern Orthodox Church does not recognize papal authority and rejects Roman Catholicism's ban on priests getting married.

But the religious leaders, at Pope Francis' urging, according to BBC Mundo's piece, temporarily put away those differences to coalesce in protecting their fellowships in the Middle East. And they did so in Cuba.

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