Cuba decorates Russia patriarch after pope visit

Cuban President Raul Castro decorates the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, with the Jose Marti Order, in Havana on February 13, 2016 (AFP Photo/Yamil Lage)

Havana (AFP) - Cuba's president Raul Castro awarded the country's highest honor to Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill on Saturday, hailing his role in the communist island's relations with Moscow.

The 84-year-old president handed the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church the Order of Jose Marti, a Cuban national hero, in the governmental Palace of the Revolution in Havana.

The ceremony came a day after talks at Havana airport between Kirill and Pope Francis -- the first such meeting between the heads of their two branches of the Church in nearly a thousand years.

Those talks were seen as significant in the context of tensions between Russia and the west over the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine.

The Church leaders vowed to work together for peace.

Castro's role as host for the meeting was seen to reflect Cuba's growing stature in international affairs.

The island is strengthening ties with the United States and Europe, but has been a longtime ally of Moscow.

"The Russian Orthodox Church, and in particular Patriarch Kirill, has played an important role in forging that relation," said a state decree read out by one of Castro's aides.

"He has contributed to spreading the best values that unite us."

Kirill said he considered it his "duty to support these relations and to do all I can to help relations between our states and peoples reach a higher level."

He earlier laid flowers at a Soviet memorial in Havana.

Cuba hosted Russian soldiers during the Cold War and is currently home to some 3,000 Orthodox worshipers.

On Sunday, Kirill will hold Mass in Our Lady of Kazan Orthodox cathedral, which he consecrated in 2008 during one of his three previous visits to Cuba.

His 11-day trip will also take him to Paraguay and Brazil.