Pope Francis's dynamic papacy has been one of many firsts, the latest being the monumental meeting in Havana on February 12 with Russian Orthodox patriarch Kirill. A convergence of Francis's great emphasis on ecumenism with the geo-religious context of virulent persecution of Christians, both Orthodox and Catholic in Syria, and throughout the Middle East and North Africa have resulted in the unprecedented meeting in Cuba. The systematic slaughter of Christians at the hands of IS and emigration from their historic homelands in the Middle East unite the two churches in defense of Catholic and Orthodox populations that are in real danger of extinction.
Paving the way for the possibility of an historic rapprochement after a thousand-year divorce between Orthodoxy and Catholicism is the dire situation of Christians in Syria and Iraq and widespread Cristophobia throughout the Muslim-majority nations in the Middle East and Africa. Since both Christianity and Islam are proselytory religions that seek member-maximization, the myriad denominations of the world's two religions naturally compete for souls where national or regional conditions permit. For example, in Latin America where national governments allow for a relatively high degree of religious liberty, Catholics and Pentecostals compete vigorously for Mexican and Brazilian souls, among others. Indeed, the primary reason a Latin American was chosen pope was because of massive Catholics losses to Pentecostalism since the 1970s. The Catholic brand of Pentecostalism, known as the Catholic Charismatic Renewal has had some success in slowing the exodus to Pentecostal churches.
While the Catholic Church complains vociferously about the poaching of members in Latin America, it attempts to convert Russians and Ukrainians to its brand of Christianity in lands that are historically Russian Orthodox. In fact, Catholic poaching attempts, which have been a spectacular failure compared to Pentecostal success in Russia and the Ukraine, have served as a major impediment to ecumenical dialog, until now. Beyond the initiative of protagonists such as Pope Francis, Patriarch Kirill and Cuban premier Raul Castro, it is IS who has driven Catholicism and Orthodoxy into each other's arms.
Systematic persecution, including wholesale slaughter, of both Catholic and Orthodox communities in Syria and Iraq, has pushed historic Middle Eastern Christians to the brink of extinction, accounting for less than 4 percent of the region's population. A spokesman for the Russian Orthodox patriarchate, Father Vsevolod Chaplin recently spun Russian intervention in Syria in terms of a holy war. "The struggle against terrorism is a holy struggle and today, our country is the most active force in the world that is taking part in the struggle against [terrorism]. Not because she has any selfish interest in this, but because terrorism is an amoral force" http://www.economist.com/blogs/erasmus/2015/10/russia-syria-and-holy-war. Thus in the context in which the very survival of Middle Eastern Christianity is at stake combined with impressive Muslim growth in Africa and Asia gives common cause to two of the planet's largest Christian churches.
If the death cult known as IS sowed the seeds of ecumenical rapprochement in Havana, it was the bold initiative on the part of three world leaders that made it possible. First and foremost is Francis, the Pope of Peace who recently engineered the historic renewal of U.S.- Cuba relations. Ecumenism and interfaith relations have been a hallmark of his young papacy and his overtures to all denominations of Orthodoxy, of which the Russian is by far the largest, have been the sine qua non of making the unprecedented meeting at Havana's airport possible. As the head of the national church in Putin's Russia, Patriarch Kirill doesn't enjoy the type of autonomy that his Catholic counterpart does, but as the leading force for ecumenism even before he became the top cleric he astutely perceives the advantages of Christian unity in the face of Islamist aggression.
Cuban host Raul Castro, a great admirer of the Argentine pontiff and the product of a Jesuit education, has also played a pivotal role in facilitating the monumental meeting on February 12. Castro had made repeated invitations to Kirill to visit the former Soviet client-state. As both a neutral, non-European venue and Latin America's least Catholic country, Cuba makes for an ideal location as a convenient stopover on Pope Francis's trip to Mexico. Some Mexicans will lament the dimming of the spotlight on the papal tour there, but a meeting that was a millennium in the making is as monumental as Pope Francis being the first New World pope.