HAVANA – The Associated Press
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I toured the new Byzantine cathedral that he will consecrate on Sunday, the purpose of his first visit to Latin America.
Accompanied by City Historian Eusebio Leal, the spiritual leader of the world’s 300 million Orthodox Christians walked through the small sanctuary Thursday and later stopped outside to look at an Eastern-style mosaic of himself and President Fidel Castro plastered on the side of the church.
“I’m very grateful for the construction of the temple of St. Nicholas,” said Bartholomew, sporting a long, flowing white beard and wearing a traditional black robe and cloth-draped cap.
Afterward, Bartholomew toured an exhibit in the old Roman Catholic San Francisco basilica next door.
Bartholomew was greeted at the airport by Cuban leader Fidel Castro Wednesday night after arriving from Istanbul. The Cuban leader later officially greeted the patriarch in a ceremony featuring a military honor guard and the pair retired behind closed doors for private talks.
The religious leader attended a concert of Greek music Thursday night.
During his visit here, he was also to meet with leaders of the Roman Catholic and Protestant faiths, and diplomats from the Greek and Turkish embassies.
On Sunday, the patriarch will consecrate the new St. Nicholas cathedral, which Castro’s communist government built as a gift to Orthodox Christians.
Greek Orthodox officials said it was the first new church of any faith to be built on the Caribbean island during Castro’s 45-year rule.
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.
Bartholomew 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 and 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.
The new cathedral 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 cost.