Orthodox Church leader calls US embargo of Cuba a "historical mistake"

The leader of the Orthodox Church branded the US embargo of Cuba a "historic mistake" in a sermon Sunday during the full pomp inauguration of a new cathedral in Havana with President Fidel Castro in attendance.

Bartholomew I, the Orthodox ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, made the statement during a sermon that formed part of the five-hour ceremony to consecrate the tiny San Nicolas Cathedral in the Cuban capital.

"The blockading of peoples and countries by society in general from other nations on earth is a historic mistake," said the patriarch, who is spiritual leader of the 300 million strong orthodox community worldwide.

"And the problems between nations and countries, like those between people, are resolved through dialogue," he added.

The ceremony began at 9:10 am (1410 GMT) Sunday in the former basilica of San Francisco, now home to Cuba's only Orthodox cathedral.

After an hour of hymns, the patriarch put on new robes and led a procession some 120 meters (395 feet) through the San Francisco Square and into the cathedral, which seats 50 people.

Castro, who had donned a formal gray suit for the occasion, met Bartholomew I in the cathedral entrance. The patriarch gave the Cuban leader his hand, exchanging a few words with Castro.

Also in attendance was Cuban National Assembly Speaker Felipe Perez Roque, and the historian of Havana, Eusebio Leal, who is considered the fomentor of the visit.

Immediately afterwards, the patriarch continued with the ceremony, proceeding in procession three times around the cathedral as part of a purification ritual.

Leal, in the name of the Cuban government, thanked the patriarch for his act consecrating the cathedral which in Cuba setting up the Orthodox sanctuary represented "a symbol of friendship and devotion ... to you and to the (Orthodox) church".

During his sermon, while still outside the cathedral, the patriarch qualified sanctions against Cuba as a "historic mistake".

He said the Orthodox Church had come to the island "to speak frankly" of that error. The patriarch added that the solution to such differences came only "through communication, such as through faithful mediation."

The United States has enforced an economic embargo against Cuba since 1961.

The patriarch also underlined the need for free public worship in Cuba.

"We hope to see in the future new temples given over to public worship. The free expression of religion faith constitutes a basic human right," he said.

Bartholomew I's speech came exactly six years after a visit to the communist island by Pope John Paul II, head of the Roman Catholic church.

On January 25, 1998, the pope called on the world to open up to Cuba, and for Cuba to open up to the world.

After the sermon, Castro handed over the keys of the cathedral to the patriarch, who awarded the Cuban leader with a St Andrew's cross, symbolizing "justice and strength".