Vartholomaios meets Castro on unprecedented trip to Cuba

HAVANA- Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomaios, spiritual leader of the world’s 300 million Orthodox Christians, met with Cuban President Fidel Castro during his mission to consecrate a new cathedral built by the island’s communist government. Vartholomaios, dressed in his traditional black robes and veiled cap and carrying his patriarchal staff, was greeted with Greek hymns and bouquets of roses on Wednesday night as he became the first Christian Orthodox patriarch to visit Latin America. Castro, wearing an olive green uniform, greeted the bearded patriarch at the bottom of the plane’s steps after the long flight from Turkey. The two men walked down a red carpet, greeting diplomats, Cuban officials, local Orthodox Christian leaders and representatives of Cuba’s Roman Catholic and Protestant churches. The patriarch and the president also greeted a small group of children dressed in white, who gave them bouquets of roses. A choir sang sacred songs in liturgical Greek. After posing briefly for news photographers and television cameramen, the pair traveled to the Palace of the Revolution, where Castro staged a formal welcoming ceremony. On Sunday, the patriarch will consecrate the new Saint Nicholas Cathedral, which Castro’s government built as a gift to Orthodox Christians. Greek Orthodox officials said it was the first new church to be built on the Caribbean island during Castro’s 45-year rule. «It is with much respect that we receive the patriarch, whose visit constitutes a gesture of friendship toward Cuba,» Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque said. Perez Roque said the visit would show the world «that in Cuba there is freedom to express religion, a faith, and there is a commitment by the government to support that right.» Cuban officials take issue with a US State Department report issued last month that said surveillance, infiltration and harassment of religious groups is common on the island. While Cuba became officially atheist in the years after the 1959 revolution that brought Castro to power, the government removed references to atheism in the constitution more than a decade ago and allowed religious believers to join the Communist Party. Before that, religious believers struggled under a system that discouraged – but never outright prohibited – religious worship. Believers were barred from important jobs and viewed with suspicion by officials who oversaw most aspects of life. Relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the government warmed in early 1998 with the visit by Pope John Paul II. But Cuba’s Catholic leaders continue pushing for the right to open parochial schools for children and access to state-controlled media. 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. The Orthodox faith is little known in Cuba, as well as the rest of Latin America, where Roman Catholicism has long been the dominant church. Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism split nearly a millennium ago over questions of theology and papal authority. Featuring traditional Orthodox mosaics and icons of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary and numerous saints, the new sanctuary of cream-colored stone with red brick trim was built alongside the Roman Catholic San Francisco Basilica in Old Havana. It will be used by the island’s estimated 2,000 Orthodox Christians, who include diplomats and foreign business people from countries such as Greece and Turkey, and people who immigrated here before the fall of communism in former Soviet states and Eastern European countries including Russia, Ukraine and Bulgaria. Neither the Cuban government nor church officials have said how much it will cost. An estimated 500 Greek Americans are expected in Cuba for the consecration, along with scores more Orthodox faithful from around the region, said Metropolitan Athenagoras, the Greek Orthodox archbishop for Central America, the Caribbean, Mexico, Central America, Panama, Colombia and Venezuela.

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