South Florida Sun-Sentinel
January 25, 2004

Patriarch to consecrate cathedral today

Vanessa Bauza

Havana · For decades Cuba's small Greek and Russian Orthodox communities have conducted their religious services at Catholic churches, office buildings and private homes, never finding a permanent sanctuary.

That changed today when the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, leader of the world's 250 million Orthodox Christians, was scheduled to consecrate the tiny new St. Nicholas Cathedral in Havana, choosing this formerly atheist country as the first Latin American destination ever for an Orthodox patriarch.

The most important religious figure to visit Havana since Pope John Paul II's historic trip, Bartholomew was greeted on his arrival from Turkey on Wednesday by Fidel Castro, whose government presented the cathedral to the Orthodox community as a gift.

Bartholomew brings a "message of religious liberties and the respect of man" to Cuba, said Metropolitan Athenagoras, the Greek orthodox archbishop for Central America and the Caribbean.

"I am sure the patriarch is going to address the fact that the church needs to respect and honor and encourage religious liberties and human liberties," Athenagoras
said.

Cuban opposition leader Oswaldo Paya sent a letter on behalf of the island's political prisoners to the patriarch on Saturday but did not expect a meeting with him
would be forthcoming.

Built in a garden in the heart of Old Havana, the cream-colored St. Nicholas Cathedral has gilded icons and hand-carved altars imported from northern Greece. It
seats about 50 people.

"I didn't think the Cubans could build a typical Orthodox church only from seeing it in pictures," said Economidis Charalampos, a Greek sculptor who arrived last
week to put the finishing touches on the cathedral. "I feel I am participating in something historic."

Cuba's Orthodox Christian community is estimated at about 1,500, including diplomats. Many are Russian woman who came to Havana after marrying Cuban men
during the Soviet era.

They have been meeting for Sunday Mass in a small room at the Russian Chamber of Commerce and are also expected to use the cathedral.

Before the cathedral's consecration, Juan Ramon Torres, who is studying to be a Greek Orthodox deacon, said it seemed like a dream that his community would
finally have a home.

"Do you know how many years I've waited for this?" said Torres, 38, an electrician. "It still seems as though it's not real."

Torres comes from a Catholic family but says he fell into the Orthodox fold more than a decade ago through his friendship with a priest who taught him about the
religion.

"He asked me interesting questions which made me think about the existence of the soul the reality of God," he recalled. "Now my fundamental interest is to serve
in the new church."

While Protestant churches have been built in Cuba over the past decade, Cuba's Catholic community has repeatedly complained that its requests to build new
churches have been denied.

As the most powerful independent institution on the island, the Catholic Church is still eyed with suspicion by government officials, many clergy say.

Cuba's Cardinal Jaime Ortega met with the patriarch on Friday. U.S. diplomats said they regretted Bartholomew did not attend a reception in his honor Saturday
night hosted by the top American diplomat in Havana, James Cason.

They called it a "missed opportunity" to meet some of the dissidents and wives of political prisoners.

Some of those close to the Greek Orthodox community said the Cuban government's gesture and the patriarch's visit were surprising given Cuba's small orthodox
community.

"There is a relatively sizable orthodox community in Argentina, Chile, Mexico, Venezuela and Colombia. So, it's like, why come here first?" said Antonios
Kireopoulos, secretary of International Affairs for the New York-based National Council of Churches, and a follower of the Greek Orthodox religion.

"I think it's the unusualness of it all," he added. "You have the opening of a church in a country that traditionally has had a difficult relationship with church bodies. I'm
very happy for the Orthodox community and I hope it thrives."

A delegation from the National Council of Churches arrived in Havana last week, timing the visit with the patriarch's.

The council forged a close relationship with the Cuban government in 2000 when it supported returning shipwrecked rafter Elián González to his father in Cuba.

The delegation, headed by Council President Bob Edgar, hoped to meet Castro and share members' concerns over the "excessive" sentences handed down to 75
dissidents by Cuban courts last April, Kireopoulos said.

Vanessa Bauzá can be reached at vmbauza1@yahoo.com

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