HAVANA – Cuban President Fidel Castro yesterday handed Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomaios, head of the Greek Orthodox Church, the key to a Byzantine church built and donated by his communist government. In a four-hour ceremony filled with centuries-old pageantry, incense and religious chants, the spiritual leader of 140 million Orthodox Christians consecrated the tiny limestone Cathedral of Saint Nicholas in the historic center of Havana. Former Greek king Constantine and his family attended the consecration, along with wealthy Greek-American businessmen and hundreds of Orthodox Christians who traveled to Cuba for the event from the USA and Greece. There are only a handful of Orthodox Christians living in Cuba, mostly Russians. Fewer that 50 Greek Orthodox followers call Cuba their home. Vartholomaios praised Castro for recognizing the Orthodox Church in Cuba for the first time since his 1959 revolution turned the island into an communist-run atheist society. In a stab at Castro’s archenemy, the USA, the orthodox patriarch criticized trade sanctions such as those imposed by Washington on Cuba for four decades and called for mediation of conflicts between nations. «The Orthodox Church… has come to preach that the blockade of countries is a historic error and that the problems between nations should be resolved through dialogue and communication, as well as trustworthy mediation,» he said. Cuba relaxed restrictions on religious practices a decade ago, after the collapse of the Soviet Union plunged the island into a severe economic crisis, and officials pointed to the new church as proof of their commitment to religious freedom. The Vatican has been at odds with the government, which has repeatedly denied its requests to build new churches and have access to the state-run media and schools. The church, built with Byzantine arches and decorated with Greek mosaics, icons, candelabra and a hand-carved wooden altar, is the first built from scratch under Castro’s rule. The 77-year-old Cuban leader, dressed in a gray business suit, received as a gift from the patriarch a blessed cross of Saint Andrew, founder of the Orthodox Church. Cuban dissidents seeking democratic reform of Cuba’s one-party system called on the patriarch to press Castro to release 75 opponents jailed last year in a political crackdown. The patriarch’s visit is the most important to Cuba by a religious leader since Pope John Paul’s historic trip in 1998. In a gesture to the Pope, Cuban authorities later released 200 political prisoners. Vartholomaios has not requested the release of prisoners, a spokesman said, but he mentioned the right to dissent in his speech at the doors of the church. «The Gospel’s message is one of respect for the human being and his rights, his freedom, his dignity and his right not to agree,» he said.