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VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Francis and the head of the Russian Orthodox Church will meet in Cuba next week in what could be a landmark step towards healing the 1,000-year-old rift between the Western and Eastern branches of Christianity.
The Vatican and the Moscow Patriarchate announced on Friday that Francis will stop in Cuba on Feb. 12 on his way to Mexico to hold talks with Patriarch Kirill, the first in history between a Roman Catholic pope and a Russian Orthodox patriarch.
There, they will appeal for an end to persecution and killing of Christians in the Middle East, the Russian side said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has aligned himself closely with the Russian Orthodox Church, making the meeting in Cuba not just a religious event but politically charged as well, especially when Russia is at odds with the West over Ukraine and Syria.
Modern popes have met in the past with the Istanbul-based ecumenical patriarchs, the spiritual leaders of Eastern Orthodoxy, which split with Rome in 1054. Those patriarchs play a largely symbolic role, while the rich Russian church wields real influence because it counts some 165 million of the world's 250 million Orthodox Christians.
The Vatican said the leaders would hold several hours of private talks at Havana airport, deliver public speeches and sign a joint statement.
The meeting was brokered by Cuban President Raul Castro, who hosted the pope in Cuba last year. The Vatican helped arrange the rapprochement between Cuba and the United States.
Such a meeting eluded Francis' two immediate predecessors, Benedict and John Paul, who both tried but failed to reach agreement with Kirill and previous patriarchs to hold talks on the prospects for eventual Christian unity.
Russia's ambassador to the Vatican, Alexander Avdeyev, told TASS news agency the meeting showed Russia could play an important role in shaping Christianity.
"In conditions of Western sanctions, the meeting of the two church leaders is a confirmation of the Christian civilizational role of Russia," Avdeyev said.
Senior Orthodox cleric Metropolitan Hilarion said long-standing differences between the two churches would remain, most notably a row over the activity of the Eastern Rite Catholic church in Ukraine that is allied with Rome.
Hilarion said the Ukraine dispute was "still on the agenda, and it remains an unhealed and a still bleeding sore thwarting normal relations between the two Churches".
But he said it was being put aside so that Kirill and Francis could work together against the persecution of Christians in the Middle East. They have often decried their oppression and killing by Islamist militants.
A spokesman for The National Ukrainian Orthodox Church Kyiv Patriarchate also welcomed the move.
"It seems that Moscow is now looking for all opportunities to restore relations with the civilized world," Archbishop Yevstratiy Zoria told Reuters, stressing he was speaking in a personal capacity. "If the Pope manages to return the Kremlin to the fold of common sense, international law and civilized relations, let God help."
The Russians had previously said outstanding differences had to be ironed out before any high-level meeting could be held.
"The situation shaping up today in the Middle East, in North and Central Africa and in some other regions where extremists are carrying out a genuine genocide of the Christian population demands urgent measures and an even closer cooperation between the Christian churches," Hilarion said.
"We need to put aside internal disagreements at this tragic time and join efforts to save Christians in the regions where they are subject to the most atrocious persecution."
The Russian Church has accused Catholics of trying to convert people from Orthodoxy after the break-up of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, a charge the Vatican has denied.
One particularly sore point is the fate of church properties that Soviet dictator Josef Stalin confiscated from Eastern Rite Catholics in Ukraine and gave to the Russian Orthodox there. After the fall of communism, Eastern Rite Catholics took back many church properties, mostly in western Ukraine.
Additional reporting by Dmitry Solovyov and Alexander Winning in Moscow, Natalia Zinets in Kiev; Editing by Alison Williams and Catherine Evans