Cuba opens first Catholic seminary since the revolution

Image caption, The seminary marks a new stage in Church-state ties in Cuba

Cuban President Raul Castro has attended the inauguration of the first new Catholic building on the communist island in more than half a century.

Mr Castro joined priests, including Vatican officials, at a new seminary outside of the capital, Havana.

Ties between the Roman Catholic Church and state soured in the aftermath of the 1959 Cuban revolution.

Relations have eased in recent years and Church officials recently helped to broker the release of 52 dissidents.

The head of the Roman Catholic Church in Cuba, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, had warm words for Mr Castro and his brother Fidel during the opening of the new San Carlos and San Ambrosio seminary on Wednesday.

"In the name of the Church, I thank both the former president, as well as current President Raul Castro, who honours us with his presence, for the state's support of this work," Cardinal Ortega said.

The inauguration was also attended by senior Vatican officials and a group of bishops from the US, including Thomas Wenski, the Archbishop of Miami, which is the centre of the Cuban exile community.

Papal visit

The new seminary, where students will be trained for the priesthood, is a symbol of just how far Church-state relations have improved in recent years, says the BBC's Michael Voss in Havana.

Image caption, Raul Castro turned to the Church to broker a deal over dissidents

The original seminary was taken over by the Cuban authorities in 1966 and men wanting to become priests were forced to study at an old building in Havana.

After the 1959 revolution, many priests left Cuba and Fidel Castro declared the island an atheist state, although diplomatic ties with the Vatican were never severed.

The major turning point in relations came in 1998 when Pope John Paul II was permitted to visit Cuba.

Earlier this year, President Raul Castro, facing growing international pressure, turned to the Catholic Church to help arrange the release of 52 political prisoners.

Under the agreement, the government promised to free - by 8 November - 52 political prisoners imprisoned in 2003 after a crackdown on opposition activists, government critics and commentators.

So far, 39 have flown to Spain, along with members of their families. However, seven of the 13 dissidents still in prison have rejected the Church deal because they do not want to leave Cuba.

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