The President of Cuba Fidel Castro, made a very public appearance at the the blessing of a Catholic convent yesterday. Havana radio and television reported the occasion, which marks the first time Castro has officially stepped inside a religious institution. In 1998 he was present at a Mass celebrated by the Pope in Havana's Plaza de la Revolution. Endorsing the convent, which will be home to eight nuns of the order of St Brigid, Castro pointed out that the opening marked the fifth anniversary of the Pope's visit to Cuba. He praised his stand over the threatened war on Iraq. Relations between church and state in Cuba were very strained until the mid-1990s. After the revolution in 1959 hundreds of priests and nuns were imprisoned and deported and many church properties were seized by the state. But in 1997, one month before the Pope's visit, Christmas was restored as a national holiday and the church appears to be experiencing greater freedom. Two weeks ago Cardinal James Ortega, primate of Cuba released a pastoral letter calling for the government to exercise more compassion in the way it treats it citizens. The convent is based in a former colonial palace in Old Havana which has been donated by the government to the sisters. It once belonged to a Spanish count.
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