Pope Francis and Russian Orthodox patriarch prepare layover meeting in Havana

Pope Francis and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill.

Pope Francis and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill.

Call it layover history.

The inside of an airport on a small, secular, communist-led island will become the unlikely meeting place for two of the most powerful religious leaders in the world.

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill and Pope Francis will meet Friday in Havana's José Martí International Airport. Francis is stopping briefly in Cuba on his way to a tour of Mexico, while Kirill is traveling through Latin America visiting the region's small Russian Orthodox communities.

The meeting is expected to focus almost entirely on the issue of religious reconciliation. The two churches split during the Great Schism of 1054 and have remained estranged over a host of issues, including the primacy of the pope and Russian Orthodox accusations that the Catholic Church is poaching converts in former Soviet lands.

Friday's meeting will be the first-ever meeting between the leaders of the churches. It will put Cuban President Raúl Castro in a positive international light at a critical point in his normalization of relations with the United States.

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In addition to the meeting of the church leaders, four years of talks in Cuba between Colombia's government and its main rebel group appear set to produce an accord ending the Western Hemisphere's longest-running conflict, perhaps as early as mid-year.

Castro is expected to welcome President Barack Obama to Havana as early as this spring to celebrate the detente the two men declared at the end of 2014, ending a half-century of hostility.

If all goes as planned, 2016 could cement Castro's construction of a foreign policy legacy markedly different from that of his brother Fidel, who oversaw five decades of tension with the United States, dispatching Cuban troops and advisers to Africa, Asia and Central and South America, and offering safe haven to anti-Western fighters from conflicts around the world.

"Cuba has been transformed from a revolutionary actor, isolated from other states in the Western Hemisphere with the exception of Mexico and Canada," said Arturo López-Levy, a Cuban-trained professor at the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley. "The country has come to be seen as a country in transformation, part of the modern-day international system."

The Obama administration has cited Cuba's role in Colombia's peace talks as a reason for the U.S. to engage with the island rather than isolating it. Images of Raúl Castro presiding over another historic attempt at reconciliation can't help but build his credentials as a man the U.S. should be doing business with.

"Fidel was widely perceived as volatile and partisan, Raúl as steadier, more predictable and reliable, more reflective, hence a better negotiating partner or host," said Richard Feinberg, a former Clinton Administration official and a professor of international politics at the University of California, San Diego.

While Raúl Castro is departing from his brother's foreign policy, Fidel Castro's international focus left his successor with some advantages, including a larger and better-trained diplomatic corps than those of many other countries its size.

Meanwhile, the country's heavily policed and monitored single-party system, in which virtually nothing happens without approval from the highest levels of government, offers a secure and mostly leak-proof, if undemocratic, site for sensitive discussions.

In the hands of Raúl Castro, the last Communist country in the West is carving out a new role in which its peculiar, once polemic role in history allows it to function as neutral ground.

"These days," Feinberg said. "Cuba is the perfect place for negotiations."

Based on reporting by The Associated Press.

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