Pope Francis has begun a historic first meeting with Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, in Cuba.
The meeting is the first between a Pope and a Russian Church head since the Western and Eastern branches of Christianity split in the 11th Century.
The Russian Orthodox Church said the “persecution of Christians” in the Middle East and North Africa would be the central theme of the talks.
The two leaders are also expected to sign a joint declaration.
They embraced and kissed each other when they met at Havana airport.
The talks are being held during Pope Francis’s stop-over on his way to Mexico. Meanwhile, Patriarch Kirill is visiting Cuba, Brazil and Paraguay.
In purely symbolic terms, this is an extraordinary moment, but it is perhaps even more significant in terms of church diplomacy, and the effort to warm relations within the Christian faith, the BBC’s Will Grant in Havana says.
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.
The Russian Church is the largest and most powerful in the Orthodoxy faith, which is made up of a number of separate churches.
- 1054 – Mutual excommunications by Western Church leader in Rome, Pope Leo IX, and Eastern Church leader in Constantinople, Patriarch Cerularius, lead to Great Schism
- 1274 and 1439 – Attempts to re-unite the two Churches at Councils of Lyon and Florence fail
- 1997 – Planned meeting between Pope John Paul II and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II cancelled
- 12 Feb 2016 – Pope Francis and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill to meet in Havana, Cuba
- Vatican has ties with Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I – nominal head of Eastern Orthodox Churches
- But Cuba talks will be first between Pope and Patriarch of Russian Church – largest and most powerful Church in Orthodoxy
- Reportedly chosen because it is far from Rome, Istanbul and Moscow with all their historical baggage of schism
- Two leaders can focus on main issue: how to protect Christians – both Catholic and Orthodox – in Middle East and North Africa from persecution
- Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in western Ukraine, which follows Eastern Church rites but answers to Vatican
- Russian Orthodox Church sees western Ukraine as its traditional territory, resenting papal influence
However, the encounter in Havana is not expected to lead to any immediate rapprochement between the Eastern and Western Churches.
Ahead of the meeting, the foreign policy chief of the Russian Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Illarion, said here were still differences between the two churches, in particular on western Ukraine.
One particular issue is the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which follows eastern church rites but answers to the Holy See.
The Russian Orthodox Church has considered western Ukraine its traditional territory, resenting papal influence there.