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Vartholomaios in Havana to consecrate Orthodox church

HAVANA – Hammers clanged inside a small Orthodox sanctuary as workers rushed to finish the church ahead of today’s arrival in Cuba of Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomaios, spiritual leader of the world’s 300 million Orthodox Christians. «We thank the people of Cuba for this gift,» Metropolitan Athenagoras, regional leader of the Greek Orthodox Church, said on Tuesday outside the new Saint Nicholas Church built by Fidel Castro’s communist government. The patriarch, making the first visit by an Orthodox patriarch to Latin America, will consecrate the church on Sunday. Trip organizers said the patriarch would be arriving in Havana yesterday afternoon from Istanbul. Dressed in black robes and cap, Metropolitan Athenagoras clasped his hands and beamed at the building of cream-colored stone blocks and red brick trim as he talked about the patriarch’s visit. «We are so grateful to him and to our Lord,» said the metropolitan, who serves as equivalent of archbishop for Central America, the Caribbean, Mexico, Panama, Venezuela and Colombia. Vartholomaios is the patriarch of Greek Orthodox Christians and considered «first among equals» of 14 patriarchs representing Orthodox Christian congregations in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, including Russia, Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, Syria and Iraq. About half of the world’s 300 million Orthodox Christians belong to the Russian and Ukrainian branches of the faith. Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism split nearly a millennium ago over questions of theology and papal authority. Built alongside the Roman Catholic San Francisco Basilica in Old Havana, the new church will be used by the island’s estimated 2,000 Orthodox Christians, including diplomats, foreign businesspeople and immigrants. An estimated 500 Greek Americans are expected here for the consecration, along with scores more Orthodox faithful from around the region, Metropolitan Athenagoras said. Cuban officials expected at the ceremony were Castro and city historian Eusebio Leal, who oversaw the church’s construction. Inside the single-story sanctuary, a colorful mosaic of Jesus Christ, Saint Nicholas and the Virgin Mary hangs over the main entrance. Four large icons of Jesus, Mary, and several saints hang on the church’s back wall. Large golden chandeliers dangle from the ceiling. The trip is purely pastoral and no visits with dissidents are planned, organizers said. The patriarch’s visit coincides with a trip here by the National Council of Churches USA, which represents many mainline American Christian groups. That group, led by the Rev. Bob Edgar, said it plans to talk with Castro about last year’s crackdown that put 75 of the island’s dissidents behind bars. The activists are serving long prison terms on charges of working with US diplomats to undermine the socialist system – an accusation they deny. 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.