Pope Francis and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill kissed each other and sat down Friday for the first meeting between heads of the Eastern and Western churches in nearly a thousand years.
The 79-year-old Francis, in white robes and a skullcap, and Kirill, 69, in black robes and a white headdress, exchanged kisses and embraced before sitting down smiling for the historic meeting at Havana airport.
“At last we meet. We are brothers,” said the pope as they met. “Clearly this meeting is God’s will.”
The Argentine pontiff is looking to heal a nearly 1,000-year-old rift in Christianity that dates back to a 1054 schism which helped shape modern Europe and the Middle East.
Francis stepped off a plane in the sunshine and shook hands with Cuban President Raul Castro on the tarmac at Jose Marti Airport before heading into the private meeting with Kirill.
The white-bearded Orthodox leader was also greeted by the 84-year-old Castro after arriving on Thursday.
The two church leaders were due to meet for about two hours and then to sign a joint declaration on the contemporary persecution of Christians in places such as Iraq and Syria.
Francis then embarks on a tour of Mexico while Kirill continues a visit to Cuba, Brazil and Paraguay.
The meeting on neutral ground – hosted by the communist, atheist Cuban leadership – was decades in the planning, with the final obstacles swept away by the pope’s determination and global politics.
Since becoming pope in 2013, Francis has pushed to make the Vatican a more active player in international diplomacy.
“I just wanted to embrace my Orthodox brothers,” he said in an interview this week.
But he also framed the encounter in a broader context of engaging Russia, saying Moscow could be an important partner for peace in the world.
Francis has twice received Russia’s President Vladimir Putin at the Vatican. The Russian leader has clashed with other powers recently over the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine.
“In the background there is a third player,” Vatican expert Marco Politi wrote in a blog, referring to Putin’s influence at Friday’s meeting.
“It would be naive to believe the sudden availability of the patriarch is unrelated to the geopolitical situation Russia finds itself in at the moment,” he argued, in a reference to Russia’s intervention in Syria.
A spokesman for the Orthodox church in Moscow insisted however there was no political agenda behind the meeting.
Spokesman Alexander Volkov said he hoped it would open the door to “new prospects of mutual cooperation,” but that reunification of the Eastern and Western churches was not on the agenda.
Despite the breakthrough of a face-to-face meeting, Vatican-Orthodox relations remain strained.
The Orthodox Church’s refusal to accept the primacy of the Roman pontiff has long been the primary barrier to a rapprochement.
Now there are tensions over the perceived evangelism of the Catholic Church in Eastern Europe.
The conflict in Ukraine has pitted Ukrainian Catholics loyal to Rome against separatists who are mostly Russian Orthodox.
Francis’s arrival in Mexico on Friday evening was set to be a luminous affair, with hundreds of thousands of well-wishers expected to line the 12-mile (19-kilometer) route from the airport to the Vatican ambassador’s residence in Mexico City.
The plan is for believers to light up the road Francis’ popemobile will travel with their mobile phones or hand-held torches, creating what local organizer Roberto Delgado described as a “wall of light and prayer.”
To underline his commitment to the plight of migrants fleeing persecution and poverty, Francis’ schedule will take in trips to Mexico’s southern and northern borders.
Mexico is home to the second-largest Catholic community in the world after Brazil.
The papal visit there comes a day after a prison riot left 49 inmates dead in the north of Mexico.
On Wednesday in Ciudad Juarez, on the border with the United States, Francis will deliver an open-air mass.
Worshippers on the other side of the border, close to the Texas town of El Paso, will also be able to follow it.
Francis has said the most emotional moment for him will come with Saturday’s visit to the Basilica of our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City.