In the latest signs of warming relations between Russia and Cuba, President Raul Castro has attended the consecration of Cuba's first Russian Orthodox church, and Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, who led the Russian church's delegation from Moscow, met the ailing leader of the Cuban revolution, Fidel Castro - writes Sophia Kishkovsky.
Raul Castro, who became president in February 2008, when his brother's nearly half-century rule ended, was present at the consecration of the white, gold-domed Church of Our Lady of Kazan in Havana on 19 October 2008.
News agencies report that Castro did not stay for the service that followed but did attend an evening concert by the Sretensky Monastery Choir, currently Russia's most famous liturgical choir, at the Saint Francis of Assisi convent in the Cuban capital.
Speaking at the consecration, Metropolitan Kirill, who is chairperson of the external relations department of the Russian church, thanked the Cuban people for building the cathedral.
"This is a great day," he said, according to the official Web site of the Moscow Patriarchate. "Today this church will inspire very many people in Russia. We will continue to do what our fathers did: to support the Cuban people sincerely and with love."
At one time, the Soviet Union and Cuba both espoused atheism, and were the closest of friends for decades. Before the demise of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, many thousands of Russian technicians and military officers lived in Cuba.
Relations between the two countries became strained after the fall of communism but began to improve several years ago. In his comments at the consecration, Metropolitan Kirill recalled the enthusiasm with which Fidel Castro greeted the idea of building a Russian Orthodox church in Cuba.
At a news conference in Moscow before the trip, Kirill said that the church has a potential flock of about 10 000 including Russians, Ukrainians, Moldovans and the children of mixed marriages with Cubans.
In his comments at the consecration, Metropolitan Kirill recalled his amazement at Fidel Castro's warm reaction four years ago when it was proposed to him that a Russian Orthodox Church be built in Havana. "He not only expressed his agreement, but he did this with great joy," said Kirill and he quoted Castro as saying, "We will build a monument."
The Russian hierarch met with Fidel Castro on 20 October and conveyed the greetings of Patriarch Aleksei II, leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, who did not make the trip to Cuba. A photograph posted on www.mospat.ru, another official Web site of the Russian Orthodox Church, shows Castro in a white track suit, looking thin and weak, grasping the arm of Kirill.
The visit to Cuba is part of "Days of Russia in Latin American," a trip to the region by Russian political, religious and business leaders. a trip to seven countries in the region by Russian government, religious, cultural and business leaders. stops will include Venezuela, with which Russia has expanded business and military ties recently.
[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]