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Pope Francis, Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill in historic talks

Pope Francis met with Patriarch Kirill in Cuba Friday — the first time the leaders of the two religions have met since the schism that divided Christianity nearly 1,000 years ago — to discuss the plight of Christians in Iraq and Syria under attack by the Islamic State.

Catholic, Russian Orthodox church leaders meet for 1st time in almost a millennium

Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill, left, and Pope Francis meet at the Jose Marti International Airport in Havana on Friday, the first papal meeting between the Russian Orthodox and Catholic Church since the schism nearly 1,000 years ago that divided the two churches. (Adalberto Roque/Pool photo via Associated Press)

Pope Francis met Friday with Patriarch Kirill in the first papal meeting with the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, a historic development in the 1,000-year schism that divided Christianity.

Francis and Kirill embraced and kissed one another three times on the cheek as they met in a wood-paneled VIP room at the Havana airport.

"We are brothers," Francis said as he embraced Kirill in the small, wood-panelled VIP room of Havana's airport, where the three-hour encounter took place.

"Now things are easier," Kirill agreed as he and the Pope met. "This is the will of God," the Pope said.

Pope Francis walks with Cuba's President Raul Castro after his arrival at the Jose Marti International Airport in Havana on Friday. Francis landed in Mexico for a five-day visit shortly after his stop in Cuba. (Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters)

The meeting and signing of a joint declaration was decades in the making and cemented Francis's reputation as a risk-taking statesman who values dialogue, bridge-building and rapprochement at almost any cost.

The joint declaration is expected to touch on the single most important issue of shared concern between the Catholic and Orthodox churches today: the plight of Christians in Iraq and Syria who are being killed and driven from their homes by the Islamic State group.

It is being signed in the uniquely ideal location of Cuba: far removed from the Catholic-Orthodox turf battles in Europe, a country that is Catholic and familiar to Latin America's first pope, but equally familiar to the Russian church given its anti-American and Soviet legacy.

The Vatican is hoping the meeting will improve relations with other Orthodox churches and spur progress in dialogue over theological differences that have divided East from West ever since the Great Schism of 1054 split Christianity.

Kirill is expected to 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. (Enrique de la Osa/Reuters)

But Orthodox observers say Kirill's willingness to finally meet with a pope has less to do with any new ecumenical impulse than grandstanding within the West and the Orthodox Church at a time when Russia is increasingly under fire from the West over its military actions in Syria and Ukraine. Kirill, a spiritual adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin, leads the most powerful of the 14 independent Orthodox churches that will meet this summer in Greece in the first such pan-Orthodox synod in centuries.

Catholic and Orthodox split in the Great Schism of 1054 and have remained estranged over a host of issues, including the primacy of the pope and, more recently, Russian Orthodox accusations that the Catholic Church was poaching converts in former Soviet lands. Those tensions have prevented previous popes from ever meeting with the Russian patriarch, even though the Vatican has long insisted that it was merely ministering to tiny Catholic communities.

Following the brief stop in Cuba, Francis landed in Mexico for an expected five-day visit, where the pontiff will bring a message of solidarity with the victims of drug violence, human trafficking and discrimination to some of that country's most violent and poverty-stricken regions.

Francis will end his trip in the violent northern city of Ciudad Juarez, where he will pray at the border for all who have died trying to cross into the U.S. — a prayer he hopes will resonate north of the border.

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.

With files from Reuters

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