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Last Updated:  Sunday, 9 March, 2003, 06:23 GMT
Castro attends convent blessing
Fidel Castro is welcomed by the head of the order of the Most Holy Saviour of St Birgid, Tekla Famiglietti
Cubans were treated to the rare sight of their leader inside a religious institution
The Cuban leader, Fidel Castro, has made an unprecedented appearance at the blessing of a Roman Catholic Church convent.

It marked the first time he has been publicly seen inside a religious institution in recent memory.

The purpose of the event, which - unusually - was broadcast live on radio and television, was for the Communist leader to help bless the newly restored convent in Old Havana.

We are here to dedicate not a school, a factory or any other of the thousands of works carried out by the Revolution, but the new home of a prestigious religious institution
Fidel Castro
The last time President Castro attended a church ceremony was during a visit by the Pope in 1998 when a Mass was held at Havana's Plaza of the Revolution.

Mr Castro said the convent's opening marked the fifth anniversary of that visit to Cuba. During Saturday's blessing, he also praised John Paul II for his efforts to prevent war in the Gulf.

The revolutionary leader joined two cardinals - one from Mexico and one from the Vatican - at the former colonial palace once owned by a Spanish count and donated to house eight nuns of the order of St Birgid.

However, Cuba's top Catholic churchman, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, who released a pastoral letter less than two weeks ago calling on the government to be more compassionate with its citizens, was absent from the proceedings.

More tolerant

Correspondents say that for decades, the Cuban regime persecuted members of the Church in the country, before the government started to take more tolerant view in the late 1990s.

Mr Castro's government expelled hundreds of Catholic priests and nuns and nationalised religious schools after seizing power in a revolution that overthrew a right-wing dictatorship in 1959.

The government became more tolerant of religious faith among Cubans after the collapse of Soviet communism plunged Cuba into economic crisis in the early 1990s.

Christmas was restored as a holiday in December 1997, one month before the Pope visited.

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