Feb. 12 meeting in Cuba follows Pope’s bid to normalize relations with China in major Vatican geopolitical shift

The Vatican announced Friday that Pope Francis will travel to Cuba later this month to meet Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox church. The meeting will be the first encounter between the leaders of the two churches in history.

Pope Francis
Pope Francis

The scheduled meeting on Feb. 12 comes on the heels of an overture by the Pope to reach out to the Chinese people and President Xi Jinping in an exclusive interview with Asia Times published on Feb. 4. The dual moves apparently reflect a historic effort by Pope Francis to reach out to two of the world’s most powerful emerging nations during a time of geopolitical change.

The pontiff, in his first-ever interview on China with Asia Times columnist Francesco Sisci, stressed the common interest of China and the Holy See for peace and the urgent need for dialogue between cultures and civilizations. He also sent the first greeting by a Pope to a Chinese leader for the Lunar New Year in 2,000 years.

News reports say the Pope will arrive in Havana on Feb. 12 and will be greeted by Cuba’s president, Raul Castro, before holding a private meeting with Kirill. Echoing his historic outreach to China, the Cuba meeting will be the first time a pope has met a Russian patriarch since the two churches split almost 1,000 years ago.

The meeting will take place in a room at José Martí international airport and last almost two hours. The two religious leaders are expected to sign a joint declaration in Russian and Italian and exchange gifts before delivering brief statements.

When it happens, it will symbolize a major rapprochement between two churches which parted ways over doctrinal differences centuries ago.

Speculation was growing Friday that the Pope’s meeting with Kirill will set the stage for a papal visit to Russia later this year. Similar speculation is afoot that Pope Francis’ overture to China could also lead to an official visit to China at some time in the future, though neither the Vatican nor China’s government will confirm such speculation.

Reports say a Chinese delegation quietly visited the Vatican in January. The Vatican has neither confirmed nor disclosed the purpose of the visit.

In China’s case, the Vatican has had no formal diplomatic ties with Beijing since the Communist Party gained power in 1949 and has since tussled over the issue of who has the final say in appointing bishops for China’s 12 million Catholics. The two are also at loggerheads over Taiwan’s status.

The meeting between Francis and Kirill was the result of two years of diplomatic talks and is of “extraordinary importance,” Vatican chief spokesman Federico Lombardi said.

The Pope in his Asia Times interview didn’t touch on sensitive subjects like human rights or religious freedom in China. The omission has drawn public criticism from some quarters.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang, referring to the Asia Times interview, said Wednesday that he had “noted the relevant report.”

“China has always been sincere about improving Sino-Vatican ties, and has made many efforts in this regard,” Lu told a daily news briefing.

“We are still willing to have constructive dialogue with the Vatican based on this principle, meeting each other half way, and keep pushing forward the development of the process of improving bilateral relations. We also hope that the Vatican can take a flexible, pragmatic attitude to creating conditions for improving ties.”

Lu did not elaborate.

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