HAVANA – The spiritual leader of the world’s 300 million Orthodox Christians will honor Fidel Castro with the Church’s Order of St Andrew the Apostle during his visit next week, event organizers said yesterday. Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomaios will thank Castro for his government’s construction of the church’s new St Nicholas Cathedral, to be consecrated by the patriarch on Jan. 25, regional church leaders told a news conference. Vartholomaios will be the first Orthodox Christian patriarch ever to visit Latin America, said Metropolitan Athenagoras of Panama and Central America, equivalent of archbishop for a region that includes Mexico, the Caribbean, Colombia and Venezuela. «For us, this visit has great historic significance,» Metropolitan Athenagoras told reporters. He said the Orthodox hierarchy occasionally bestows the Order of St Andrew on personalities who help the Church. Vartholomaios is considered «first among equals» of 14 patriarchs representing Orthodox Christians in eastern Europe and the Middle East, including Russia, Romania, Ukraine, Greece and Syria. Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism split a millennium ago over questions of theology and papal authority. The Ecumenical Patriarch will arrive in Cuba Wednesday, «bringing the same message that Jesus Christ brought 2,000 years ago,» the metropolitan said. «It’s the same message of peace, the message of reconciliation.» The trip will be strictly ecclesiastical and nonpolitical in nature, organizers said. «The patriarch does not take political positions,» said Benjamin Leavenworth, communications director for the visit. No visits with dissidents are planned, he said. Cuba became officially atheist in the years after the 1959 revolution that brought Castro to power, but the government abandoned official atheism more than a decade ago and allowed religious believers to join the Communist Party for the first time. There are less than 2,000 practicing Orthodox Christians in Cuba, many of them immigrants from countries of the former Soviet Union. Vartholomaios is considered a successor to St Andrew the Apostle, believed to have founded the Church in the early years of Christianity in what was then called Byzantium. In recent years, Vartholomaios has visited Libya, Iran, Bahrain and Qatar – the first Ecumenical Patriarch to visit those Muslim countries – to promote religious tolerance.