01/24/2004, 00.00
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Behind-the-scenes of an Orthodox church in Havana

Signs of openness, political moves, nostalgia for relations with Russia, reconciliation with the Orthodox community of Latin America: this is the mixed bag of reasons bringing Bartholomew I to Cuba.

Istanbul (AsiaNews) - In a country which still represses freedom of religion the inauguration of the first Greek Orthodox church in Cuba appears to be contradictory. Fidel Castro, who entirely financed its renovation, even called it "a gift from the people of Cuba".

It is, however, an understandable move in light of previous happenings.

Until Christmas 1997 the Cuban state imposed atheism on its citizens. At least two generations of Cubans did not even know what Christianity was, if not heard about through their parents or grandparents.

Then John Paul II visited Cuba, and the churches came out of their "catechumenate": they were reopened, and once again one could be baptized in public, freely frequent parishes and celebrate holy days and liturgies. In brief, a new era began in which worship was possible. Yet while certainly an improvement, there is still not full religious liberty in Cuba.  

Following these events the Orthodox Church rustled up some courage.

"In those years, said archbishop Athenagoras from Panama, "many churches were returned to their rightful congregations". The archbishop, too, began advancing the rights of the Orthodox community. Together with the Greek ambassador to Cuba, Yorgos Kostoulas, the Metropolitan Archbishop of Panama and Central America initiated a long and subtle diplomatic and political move to regain the Orthodox church of Sts. Constantine and Helen, built in 1950 but never used other than as a children's theater. 

Thanks to the ambassador's strong support, the orthodox church was granted permission two years ago to be reopened, after having its stone structure, Byzantine arches and altar properly renovated  Tomorrow, Jan. 25 2004, the church will be officially opened and dedicated to St. Nicholas, patron saint of sailors, in the colonial quarter of Old Havana.   

There are 25,000 other Orthodox Christians living in Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, Cuba and the Caribbean countries falling under Panama's jurisdiction.

Metropolitan Athenagoras admits that Cuba's generous gesture toward the Greek Orthodox community may appear incomprehensible. Most Cuban Christians are Catholics and of the few thousand Orthodox residents in Cuba, only 50 are Greek. Yet he believes: "It is at any rate a great sign of respect for a Church which has been in the country for generations, without drawing distinctions between rites and jurisdictions and despite being only 50 in number.  Indeed, we have not forgotten that our Cuban Orthodox community is subject to control by the Office of Religious Affairs and is not implicated in the West policy. This includes Russians hailing from the former Soviet Union for whom, as we know, Castro has always been sympathetic."  

And as a gesture of solidarity and respect for the ecclesial hierarchy Fidel Castro directly invited patriarch Bartholomew I to preside over the church's inauguration ceremony.

From the Church's perspective, tomorrow will be a historic day for communion and reconciliation. In 1996 the Patriarchate of Panama and Central America split from the ecclesial jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.  Tomorrow's ceremony is a special occasion and a breach to strengthen roots and identities, a coming out of cultural isolation.

In fact it is predicted that many Greeks living in Canada and the United States as well as Latin America will visit Cuba during the celebration scheduled for Jan. 25. Among those who will show up for the inauguration will be the former king of Greece, Constantine. (M.Z.)

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