Pope Francis and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill urge Christian unity at historic first meeting

Pope Francis and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill have held a historic first meeting, calling for restored Christian unity and urgent action to help Christians threatened by violence in the Middle East.

“For nearly 1,000 years, Catholics and Orthodox have been deprived of communion in the Eucharist,” they said in a joint declaration signed after talks in Cuba.

“We are pained by the loss of unity, the outcome of human weakness and of sin.

“Conscious of the numerous obstacles that remain to be overcome, we hope our meeting contributes to the reestablishment of this unity wished for by God.”

They signed the declaration after holding talks in Cuba — the first such meeting between the leaders of the Eastern and Western churches in nearly 1,000 years.

“We call on the international community to take urgent action to prevent Christians from continuing to be driven out of the Middle East,” they said.

“In Syria and Iraq, violence has already cost thousands of lives, leaving millions of people homeless and without resources.”

It was the first meeting between the heads of the Eastern and Western churches since the great schism of 1054 when the churches split apart, with the Eastern church rejecting the authority of Rome.

“Mindful of the permanence of many obstacles, it is our hope that our meeting may contribute to the re-establishment of this unity willed by God,” the church leaders said.

Their meeting was driven by rising violence in recent years in the Middle East, where Christian communities have suffered violence at the hands of extremists.

“We call upon the international community to act urgently in order to prevent the further expulsion of Christians from the Middle East,” they said.

“In many countries of the Middle East and North Africa whole families, villages and cities of our brothers and sisters in Christ are being completely exterminated.

“We wish to express our compassion for the suffering experienced by the faithful of other religious traditions who have also become victims of civil war, chaos and terrorist violence.”

The 79-year-old Pope, in white robes and a skullcap, and Patriarch Kirill, 69, in black robes and a white headdress, earlier kissed and embraced before sitting down smiling for the historic meeting at Havana airport.

Between them, they are the spiritual leaders of more than 1.3 billion Christians.

Pope Francis left after the meeting for a tour of Mexico, while Patriarch Kirill continued a visit to Cuba, Brazil and Paraguay.