Pope Francis to meet with Russian Patriarch Kirill in Cuba

(REUTERS / Sergei Gunyeev / Ria Novosti / Kremlin/Files)Russia's President Vladimir Putin (L) and Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Kirill arrive for the meeting with Russian Orthodox church bishops in Moscow February 1, 2013. As troops loyal to Russian President Vladimir Putin were seizing control of Crimea, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow deduced that an "internal political crisis" in Ukraine was threatening its territorial integrity. Picture taken February 1, 2013.

Pope Francis will meet the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill for first time for an historic meeting in Cuba, the Vatican has said.

The Holy See sees the meeting of great significance in Catholic-Russian Orthodox relations.

The private meeting will last two hours and take place in Havana on Feb. 12 while the Pope is heading to Mexico for a pastoral visit.

"After centuries it is the first time that the pope will meet with the head of the Russian Orthodox Church. It is an event of extraordinary importance," Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombarid said Feb. 5.

The meeting will be the first top-level encounter beteen the two churches since the 11th century.

"The Holy See and the Patriarchate of Moscow are pleased to announce that, by the grace of God, His Holiness Pope Francis and His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia will meet on February 12 next," the joint statement issued by the Vatican and the Russian Orthodox Church said..

"Their meeting will take place in Cuba, where the Pope will make a stop on his way to Mexico, and where the Patriarch will be on an official visit. It will include a personal conversation at Havana's José Martí International Airport, and will conclude with the signing of a joint declaration.

"This meeting of the Primates of the Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church, after a long preparation, will be the first in history and 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."

Patriarch Kirill has been the head of the Russian Orthodox Church since February 2009, while Pope Francis took up his role in March 2013.

The Roman Catholic Church has more than a billion members worldwide, while the Russian Orthodox Church numbers about 165 million and is the biggest Orthdox church.

The Orthodox Church is made up of more than 10 separate churches.

The Vatican has existing ties with the Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew.

The pace of reconciliation between Russia, the biggest country in the world, and the Vatican, the smallest, has been swift, The New York Times reported. 

The two agreed to establish formal diplomatic ties at the end of 2009, and Russian President Vladimir Putin met Francis in June 2015, in what was seen as a break of Russia's isolation from the West over the crisis in Ukraine.

The Orthodox Church has close relations with the Kremlin and Kirill and Putin are said to have a close relationship.

The Cuba meeting was not an "improvisation," Father Lombardi said, Catholic News Service reported.

Tt took two years of intense planning and negotiations to schedule. Even when the idea of a meeting was just a vague hope, both Catholic and Orthodox officials insisted it would have to take place on "neutral" territory rather than at the Vatican or in Russia.

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