Pope Francis will meet the head of the Russian Orthodox Church for the first time next week in Havana, both churches announced. The historic meeting is an attempt to heal the 1,000-year-old rift in Christianity.   

Francis will meet Patriarch Kirill on February 12 at Havana’s José Martí International Airport, a statement from the Vatican said. The meeting “will include a personal conversation … and will conclude with the signing of a joint declaration,” the statement added. Francis will stop in Havana en route to Mexico, and Kirill will be on an official visit to Cuba at the time.

The statement added:

This meeting of the Primates of the Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church, after a long preparation, will be the first in history and will mark an important stage in relations between the two Churches. The Holy See and the Moscow Patriarchate hope that it will also be a sign of hope for all people of good will. They invite all Christians to pray fervently for God to bless this meeting, that it may bear good fruits.

The churches split in 1054 amid disagreements over theology and became two separate faith traditions: Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians. Next week’s meeting would go a long way toward healing what is known as the Great Schism.

Past attempts to organize meetings between Popes John Paul II and Benedict and their Russian Orthodox counterparts failed because of differences over what the Russian church labeled the “actions of the Greek Catholics in Ukraine and proselytism of Catholic missionaries in the canonical territory of the Moscow Patriarchate.”

The Russian Orthodox Church, in its statement, added that while those and other differences remained, “[n]evertheless, the situation as it has developed today in the Middle East, in North and Central Africa and in some other regions, in which extremists are perpetrating a real genocide of the Christian population, has required urgent measures and closer cooperation between Christian Churches. In the present tragic situation, it is necessary to put aside internal disagreements and unite efforts for saving Christianity in the regions where it is subjected to the most severe persecution.”

My colleague Emma Green, writing in May 2014, noted that has been a slow thaw in the Vatican’s relations with the Eastern Church. She wrote at the time:

On his way home from a meeting with Pope Francis in the Holy Land, Patriarch Bartholomew I, the primary leader of Eastern Orthodox Christians, gave an interview in which he said that he and Francis are planning a gathering in Nicaea 11 years from now "to celebrate together, after 17 centuries , the first truly ecumenical synod." That's a pretty big deal.

Next week’s meeting will come four months ahead of the opening in June of the first Synod meeting of the various Orthodox churches in more than a millennium. That gathering has been threatened, the National Catholic Reporter adds, by differences between the Russian and other Orthodox leaders.