(Vatican Radio) Pope Francis and the Russian Orthodox leader Patriarch Kirill on Friday concluded a historic encounter in the Cuban capital with an urgent appeal for an end to conflict and the persecution of Christians across the Middle East.
The appeal came in a Joint Declaration which the two leaders signed at the end of a two hour private conversation at Havana airport, signaling the start of a new era of relations between Catholics and the Russian Orthodox Church.
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The 30 paragraph long declaration put down in words the heartfelt desire of both the Pope and the Patriarch to put an end to centuries of conflict and disputes between Moscow and Rome.
Speaking after the closed door encounter, with just their translators and closest advisers present, Pope Francis said the two leaders had talked together as bishops and “as brothers” who share the same baptism.
Unity, the Pope stressed, is achieved by walking together, adding that he and the Patriarch had discussed a number of initiatives that they feel it is possible to achieve, despite the continuing obstacles that have divided the East and Western churches since their schism of 1054.
In their Joint Declaration, the two men say they hope their first encounter in Cuba, crossroads between East and West, between North and South, can contribute in a concrete way to the reestablishment of unity between Christians.
The document speaks at length about the plight of Christians and other people of faith who are persecuted in countries across the Middle East and North Africa, witnessing the destruction of their churches and the extermination of families, villages and entire cities. In particular the statement speaks of the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, urging the international community to work together “to put an end to violence and terrorism” and to prevent the expulsion of Christians from the region.
The Pope and the Patriarch stress the vital importance of interfaith dialogue and they appeal to all those involved in the fight against terrorism “to act in a responsible and prudent manner”.
Also high on the list of shared Catholic and Orthodox concerns is the question of religious freedom, not just in former communist countries where atheism dominated for decades but also throughout the Europe and beyond where secularism, the statement warns, poses “a serious threat to religious liberty”.The Joint Document focuses on the plight of the poor and migrants who are knocking on the door of rich countries, where unbridled consumerism is threatening the natural resources of our planet.
The Pope and the Patriarch reiterate their belief in the family and marriage, as an act of love freely chosen between a man and a woman, as the foundation of society. They stress the inalienable right to life of children in the womb, as well as the elderly and the sick, and they call on young Christians to be unafraid to live out these Gospel values in their lives.
Finally the two leaders speak about the conflict in Ukraine which has left so many dead and injured, provoking a serious humanitarian and economic crisis. They say they hope their encounter can contribute to ending the tensions between Greek Catholics and Orthodox Christians and they invite members of all Churches to work together to restore peace to the war-torn country.