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Last Updated: Thursday, 22 January, 2004, 01:50 GMT
Castro greets Orthodox patriarch

By Stephen Gibbs
BBC correspondent in Havana

The most senior spiritual leader of the Orthodox Christian faith has arrived in Cuba.

It is the first time any Orthodox Patriarch has visited Latin America in the Church's history.

Patriarch Bartholomew l (left) is greeted by Fidel Castro (right)
Patriarch Bartholomew insists the visit is apolitical
Patriarch Bartholomew will consecrate a cathedral in Havana and is also expected to bestow an honour on Fidel Castro.

The Patriarch flew in on a jet lent to him by the Greek Government.

As he stepped from the plane in his black robes, there to greet him was his host, President Castro.

With their greying beards, both men looked rather alike, although the Cuban leader was wearing his traditional military fatigues.

Many are surprised that this communist-led island has been chosen as the first country in the region any leader of the 2,000-year-old Orthodox faith has visited.

Until a little over a decade ago Cuba was an atheist state. Its Orthodox population numbers only a couple of thousand, mainly made up of Russians who came here during the Soviet era.

But the Patriarch's aides say that he is responding to what they describe as the generous decision of the Cuban Government to build and donate to the religion a tiny Orthodox cathedral in the heart of old Havana.

They also stress that there is no political dimension to the visit.

Some Cuban dissidents have expressed disappointment but the Patriarch has made it clear that he will not be visiting them.

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