Pope Francis is welcomed by Cuban President Raul Castro in Havana Friday. The pope landed in Havana for a brief-but-historic first meeting with Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, leader of the Russian Orthodox Church. Photo: yamil lage/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
Pope Francis is welcomed by Cuban President Raul Castro in Havana Friday. The pope landed in Havana for a brief-but-historic first meeting with Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, leader of the Russian Orthodox Church. Photo: yamil lage/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

HAVANA— Pope Francis arrived in Cuba early Friday afternoon, the Alitalia jetliner landing just before 2:00pm at Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport, for the briefest international visit of his pontificate – and one of the most significant –  the first ever papal meeting with the head of the Russian Orthodox Church.

The Pope’s scheduled two-hour meeting with Patriarch Kirill before heading off on a five-day visit to Mexico, is a historic development in the 1,000-year split within Christianity.

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, behind, walks with Cuba's President Raul Castro at the Jose Marti International airport in Havana, Cuba, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016. Kirill is traveling through Latin America, visiting national leaders and the region's small Russian Orthodox communities. (Ismael Francisco/Cubadebate via AP)
Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, behind, walks with Cuba’s President Raul Castro at the Jose Marti International airport in Havana, Cuba, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016. Kirill is traveling through Latin America, visiting national leaders and the region’s small Russian Orthodox communities. (Ismael Francisco/Cubadebate via AP)

The event also has potential geopolitical implications, drawing attention to the plight of Christian minorities in the Middle East—a common priority of both church leaders—and reflecting Russian President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to end his country’s diplomatic and economic isolation nearly two years after its takeover of Crimea.

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill (L) Credit: Patriarchia.Ru/PopeFrancis (R) Credit: Alexey Gotovsky/CNA.
Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill (L) Credit: Patriarchia.Ru/PopeFrancis (R) Credit: Alexey Gotovsky/CNA.

Following the private talks, the pope and Patriarch are expected to sign a joint declaration and make short televised speeches.

The pontiff is scheduled to leave for Mexico City at 5:30 p.m. to start a nearly six-day visit to 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.

Havana was a surprise addition to the pope’s long-planned Mexico trip—his 12th outside of Italy—when the Vatican announced the change last Friday. But the Vatican spokesman said the meeting with Patriarch Kirill was the result of “long planning.”

“This is a demanding trip, too busy, but one that is very much desired: desired by my brother Kirill, by me and also by Mexicans,” the pope said on the flight to Havana.

Patriarch Kirill has an extensive record of ecumenical relations with the Catholic Church, and Pope Francis has enjoyed close ties with Orthodox leaders since his time as archbishop of Buenos Aires.

What separated the Catholic and Orthodox thousand years ago? The East–West Schism (sometimes called the Great Schism) is the break of communion between what are now the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches, which began in the 11th century.

Are Catholics and Orthodox truly that different? For half a century now the two sides have been referring to each other officially as sister churches. A list of theological sticking points looks relatively short, and the Catholic understanding of papal supremacy is generally agreed to be the greatest difficulty.