Pope Francis meets with Russian Orthodox leader, Patriarch Kirill

Meetings between top level leaders are not unusual, but this one is especially noteworthy. For the first time since the 11th century, leaders of the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches met to discuss unity among Christians. According to the official announcement of the meeting, it was planned to be “the first in history and will mark an important stage in relations between the two Churches.”

The division of the Greek East and the Latin West led to the split of the churches, commonly known as the Great Schism of 1054. Not only is there a disconnect in the two churches’ theology and discipline but also in the way they perceive themselves. The gradual process of estrangement of the Roman and Byzantine branches of the Christian church spanned from the ninth to the 15th century. The political, social, economic and cultural difference destroyed the harmony among the church. Members and leaders no longer spoke or read the same languages, becoming one of the largest barriers. This altered the church’s religious and ethnic identities both then and now.

The Russian Orthodox Church contains over 150 million members, and the Roman Catholic Church has about 1.25 billion members presently. Even with the strain of these dissimilarities, the Eastern and Western churches came together because of the harsh encounters Christians all over the world are presently experiencing.

“Although many problems in relations between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church remain unresolved, the protection of Christians in the Middle East against the genocide is a challenge that requires urgent united efforts,” said Vladimir Legoida, spokesman for the Russian Orthodox Church.

Last November, Pope Francis contacted Patriarch Kirill and stated he would meet him anywhere at anytime. It was inevitable that the topic of Christian unity would emerge to the forefront. Pope Francis mentioned the essentiality of the spirit of unity is in a time of persecutions.

On Feb. 12, the two-hour meeting was completed at a neutral location: Cuba’s Havana airport. A land considerable distance away from the place of historic religious disputes, Cuba seemed like “the perfect place for negotiation,” stated Richard Feinberg, a former Clinton administration official and a professor of international politics at the University of California, San Diego.

The joint declaration the leaders signed states, “By meeting far from the longstanding disputes of the ‘Old World,’ we experience with a particular sense of urgency the need for the shared labour of Catholics and Orthodox, who are called, with gentleness and respect, to give an explanation to the world of the hope in us.”

In 2014 alone, 4,344 individuals faced death and persecution for their belief in Jesus Christ. This number has doubled each year since 2011, Christianity Today reports. Although Patriarch Kirill and Pope Francis had much to discuss, they focused solely on the Christian communities struggling in the face of persecution. In the historic joint declaration, the leaders wrote: “In our determination to undertake all that is necessary to overcome the historical divergences we have inherited, we wish to combine our efforts to give witness to the Gospel of Christ and to the shared heritage of the Church of the first millennium, responding together to the challenges of the contemporary world. Orthodox and Catholics must learn to give unanimously witness in those spheres in which this is possible and necessary.”

“Now is a time when differences need to be put aside and changes implemented,” Pope Francis mentioned. He went on to say, “We spoke as brothers. We have the same baptism. We are bishops. We spoke about our churches. We agreed that unity is made moving forward.”

Unity is not a new message for Pope Francis. In July 2015 he cited the beheading of Christians by Islamic extremists. His ambition is clearly solidarity among the faith, not estrangement of brothers and sisters in Christ due to differences.

“When those who hate Jesus Christ kill a Christian, before killing him, they don’t ask, ‘Are you Lutheran, or Orthodox, or Evangelical or Baptist or Methodist?’ If the enemy unites us in death, who are we to divide ourselves in life?” Pope Francis stated. This ecumenical theme of the conversation between two influential leaders in the Christian world is reflective of larger emphases that have emerged in recent Christian dialogue.