Pope Francis Vatican
Pope Francis speaks during the weekly audience in Saint Peter's Square at the Vatican Reuters

Pope Francis and Russian Patriarch Kirill will meet in Cuba on February 12th, the Vatican has announced. It will be the first time that the heads of the Roman Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church have come together in the same place since the churches split about 1,000 years ago.

The meeting "will mark an important stage in the relations between the two churches", the Vatican said in a joint statement with the Patriarchate of Moscow. "The Holy See and the Moscow Patriarchate hope that it will also be a sign of hope for all people of good will. They invite all Christians to pray fervently for God to bless this meeting, that it may bear good fruits."

The announcement came at a surprise press briefing on unspecified important matters called by the director of the Holy See Press Office, Father Federico Lombardi. The historic meeting will take place at Havana's José Martí International Airport, where Francis will land on his way to a long-planned official visit to Mexico. Kirill was already scheduled to be in the Caribbean nation in February.

The pontiff and his Russian counterpart will meet at the airport's delegates' room under the auspices of Cuban leader Raul Castro and sign a joint declaration after holding short private talks.
The summit will last about two hours, after which Francis will return to his plane and take off for Mexico.

The contents of the declaration were not disclosed but Lombardi said it will be "very significant", adding that preparations for the encounter had been long running, as the two churches look to mend millennial divisions.

Francis had already signalled his intention to meet Kirill in November 2014, when he said he told the Patriarch: "I'll go wherever you want. You call me and I'll go." Moscow has suggested the need of building bridges was made more pressing by the persecution of Christians in the Middle East.

The Orthodox Church broke away from Rome's leadership over theological disputes in the East-West Schism, also known as the Great Schism, which began in the 11th century. The Russian Orthodox Church was formally recognised as independent in 1589.

Orthodox Christmas
Russian Patriarch Kirill leads a Christmas service in Moscow's Christ the Saviour cathedral Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP

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