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By Renee Webb

HAVANA (CNS) — At long last,
Pope Francis and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow embraced, kissing
each other three times.

“Finally,” the pope
told the patriarch Feb. 12 as they met in a lounge at Havana’s Jose Marti
International Airport. “We are brothers,” he told the patriarch.

Amid the clicking of cameras and
multiple flashes, Patriarch Kirill was overheard telling the pope, “Things
are easier now.”

“It is clearer that this is
God’s will,” Pope Francis told him.

A flight of almost 12 hours
capped months of intense negotiations and more than two decades of Vatican
overtures to bring a pope and a Russian patriarch together for the first time.

Cuban President Raul Castro
played host to the pope and patriarch, who was on a visit to Russian Orthodox
communities on the island-nation. Pope Francis had a pastoral visit to Mexico
planned for months; the stop in Havana was announced only a week before the

Pope Francis and Patriarch
Kirill signed a joint declaration that emphasized the things the two churches
have in common.

Addressing the situation in the
Middle East and North Africa, they said that “whole families, villages and
cities of our brothers and sisters in Christ are being completely exterminated.”
They called on the international community “to act urgently in order to
prevent the further expulsion” of Christians, to end violence and
terrorism and to ensure that large amounts of humanitarian aid reach the
victims of violence.

“In raising our voice in
defense of persecuted Christians, we wish to express our compassion for the
suffering experienced by the faithful of other religious traditions who have
also become victims of civil war, chaos and terrorist violence,” they

“Attempts to justify
criminal acts with religious slogans are altogether unacceptable,” they
said. “No crime may be committed in God’s name.”

They called those who have died “martyrs
of our times” and said they helped unite various churches “by their
shared suffering.”

They spoke of the need to be
vigilant against European integration that is “devoid of respect for religious
identities.” They also spoke of extreme poverty, the “millions of
migrants and refugees knocking on the doors of wealthy nations” and

They spoke of life issues:
abortion, euthanasia, new reproductive technologies and threats against the
churches’ view of marriage.

After they signed the document,
the two leaders embraced, and each spoke briefly.

Patriarch Kirill said they had a
two-hour, “open discussion with full awareness of the responsibility we
have for our people, for the future of Christianity, and for the future of
human civilization itself. It was a conversation filled with content that gave
us the opportunity to understand and hear the position of the other. And the
results of the conversation allow me to assure that currently both churches can
cooperate together to defend Christians around the world; with full
responsibility to work together so that there may be no war; so that human life
can be respected in the entire world; so that the foundations of human, family
and social morality may be strengthened through the participation of the church
in the life of human modern society.”

Pope Francis said: “We
spoke as brothers, we share the same baptism, we are bishops, we spoke about
our churches. We agreed that unity is done walking (together). We spoke clearly
without mincing words. I confess that I felt the consolation of the Spirit in
this dialogue. I am grateful for the humility of His Holiness, his fraternal
humility and his good wishes for unity. We left with a series of initiatives
that I believe are viable and can be done. “

He thanked Patriarch Kirill and
others involved in arranging the meeting and also thanked Cuba, “the great
Cuban people and their president here present. I am grateful for his active
availability; if it continues this way, Cuba will be the ‘capital of unity.'”

Patriarch Kirill gave Pope
Francis a small copy of an icon of Our Lady of Kazan, which itself is a symbol
of Vatican-Russian Orthodox detente, but also of failed hopes. The oldest known
copy of the icon, an ornate 18th-century piece had been hanging in St. John
Paul II’s study for a decade as he hoped to return it to Russia personally.
Instead, in 2004, he had Cardinal Walter Kasper take it back to its country of
origin as a gesture of goodwill.

The icon is one of the most
revered and replicated icons in Russian Orthodoxy.

Pope Francis gave Patriarch Kirill
a reliquary with a relic of St. Cyril, the patriarch’s patron saint, and a
chalice, which not only is a sign of hopes for full communion between the two
churches, but also a sign that the Catholic Church recognizes the validity of
the Orthodox sacraments.

The addition of a stopover in
Cuba was widely seen as a sign of Pope Francis’ willingness to go the extra
mile to reach out a hand in friendship. At the same time, observers said, it
gave those Russian Orthodox opposed to ecumenism a sense that their church is
special and that it bowed to no one in agreeing to the meeting.

In a commentary distributed Feb.
11, Ukrainian Catholic Bishop Borys Gudziak of Paris said: “The pope is
demonstrating humility; he is going to the territory of the other. In the eyes
of nostalgic Russians, Cuba is almost home territory, a last outpost of a lost
Soviet Empire.”

For decades, the Russian
Orthodox told the Vatican that a meeting between the patriarch and pope was
impossible because of the activities of Latin-rite Catholics in Russia and,
especially, the Eastern-rite Catholics in Ukraine.

The Moscow Patriarchate had said
that while those problems still exist with the Catholic communities, they take
a backseat to the urgency of defending together the rights and very existence
of persecuted Christians in the Middle East.

The harsh persecution of
Christians and other minorities in Syria, Iraq and other parts of the region
has been a cause Pope Francis has pleaded before world leaders and for which he
has rallied the prayers of Christians across the globe.

He speaks often of the “ecumenism
of blood,” the fact that Christians are killed for believing in Christ
with the persecutors not knowing or caring what denomination or church they
belong to. Christians are fully united in that suffering and, the pope has
said, those who die for their faith are in full communion with each other and
with centuries of martyrs now in the presence of God.

But the fate of persecuted
Christians was not the pope’s primary motive for meeting Patriarch Kirill.
Simply meeting him was the point.

Metropolitan Hilarion
Volokolamsk, head of the Moscow Patriarchate’s external affairs department,
told reporters a week earlier that Patriarch Kirill chose Havana in the “New
World” because Europe, the “Old World,” was the birthplace of
Christian division.

Ukrainians, Catholic or not,
have expressed concerns about Pope Francis’ meeting with Patriarch Kirill given
the patriarch’s apparently close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin at a
time of ongoing fighting in Eastern Ukraine.

“The topics of discussion
will not be explicitly political ones,” Bishop Gudziak wrote. “The
gist of the rendezvous will be the encounter of church leaders representing
very different experiences, agendas, styles and spiritualities of ecclesial
leadership. One can hardly expect revolutionary results. Yet, it is through
encounter that spiritual change occurs. Let us pray for good spiritual fruit.”

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Contributing to this story was
Junno Arocho Esteves in Mexico City.

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