The Vatican and the Russian Orthodox Church have announced that Pope Francis would meet Moscow Patriarch Kirill for the first time. The two religious leaders are set to discuss the persecution of Christians.
The pope and the head of the largest Orthodox Church would meet next week in Cuba, the churches said in a joint statement on Friday.
According to the statement, the high-profile summit on February 12 "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.
"They invite all Christians to pray fervently for God to bless this meeting, that it may bear good fruits," the statement added.
The two leaders are set to meet at the Havana airport during Kirill's visit to Cuba, with Francis making a stop on his way to Mexico.
Metropolitan Illarion, the Russian cleric in charge of foreign affairs, said the main topic on the agenda would be persecution of Christians worldwide.
"The situation in the Middle East, in northern and central Africa and in other regions where extremists are perpetrating genocide of Christians requires immediate action and an even closer cooperation between Christian churches," Illarion said.
While there are still issues separating the two organizations, "we need to put aside internal disagreements and pool efforts to save Christianity in the regions where it is subject to most severe persecution," he added.
Religion coming back to Russia
The relations between the two Christian denominations have been strained for nearly a millennium, ever since the split between the Western and the Eastern branches of Christianity in 1054.
Even today, Orthodox Christians differ from Catholics on a range of issues, most notably allowing their priests to marry and rejecting the Vatican's authority.
There is also no counterpart of the pope in the Orthodox world.
However, Patriarch Kirill leads the Orthodox community with the most members. Some 75 percent of Russia's 144 million people declare themselves to be Orthodox.
The church in Russia has boosted its influence dramatically since the fall of communism in the early 90's. The current patriarch has been criticized for his increasingly close ties to the Kremlin.
dj/sms (AP, Reuters, Interfax)