Leader of Orthodox Christians Goes to Cuba

The spiritual leader of the world's 300 million Orthodox Christians will travel to Cuba next week at the invitation of President Fidel Castro to consecrate a cathedral, a regional church leader said Wednesday.

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew will arrive on Jan. 21 and consecrate the cathedral on Jan. 25, said Metropolitan Athenagoras of Panama and Central America, which includes Mexico, the Caribbean, Colombia and Venezuela.

"Our church is very old, the oldest in all of Christianity, and we bring a message of peace," Athenagoras told The Associated Press. "For us, it is an honor to be in Cuba."

Cuba was explicitly atheist for about 25 years after Castro's revolution, but the collapse of the Soviet Bloc led the government to abandon official atheism and to openly, if warily, accept religious faith.

In recent years, Bartholomew has visited Libya, Iran, Bahrain and Qatar — the first ever by an Ecumenical Patriarch to those Muslim countries — to promote religious tolerance.

The St. Nicholas Cathedral was constructed with Cuban government funds on one side of the Byzantine-style Basilica of San Francisco, a former Roman Catholic sanctuary now used mostly for concerts.

"This cathedral is an offering, as the president says in his letter to the patriarch," Athenagoras said.

There are some 1,200 practicing Orthodox Christians in Cuba and the church hopes to bring another 500 back into the fold, especially immigrants from countries of the former Soviet Union and eastern Europe.