PENALVER, Cuba (Reuters) - The Catholic Church opened on Wednesday its first new seminary in Cuba in half a century in the latest sign of improving church-state relations after decades of hostility on the communist-led island.
President Raul Castro showed his support by attending the ceremony and touring the facility, but did not speak to the crowd of about 300 diplomats, church and government officials at the event on the outskirts of Havana.
Cuban Catholic leader Cardinal Jaime Ortega expressed his appreciation to the president and his brother, former leader Fidel Castro, for lending government help to the long-sought project.
“In the name of the Church, I thank the former president as well as current President Raul Castro, who honors us with his presence, for the state’s support of this work, to its completion,” Ortega told the gathering.
Pope Benedict XVI extended a blessing to all those who “have generously contributed to the construction of this building,” Vatican Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone said in a message read to the gathering.
The original San Carlos and San Ambrosio seminary, where students are trained for the priesthood, was taken over by Cuban authorities in 1966 and turned into a military barracks, then a police academy.
The expropriation was just one incident among many as relations between the Church and government quickly soured after the 1959 revolution that put Fidel Castro in power and transformed Cuba into a communist state.
After years of tension, things slowly improved following a 1998 visit of Pope John Paul II and advanced significantly this year when Raul Castro, seeking to defuse international criticism, used the Church to broker the release of more than 50 political prisoners.
Before the Pope’s visit, Cuban bishops were often critical of the government and their churches the scene of dissident protests.
Despite its precarious position for so many years, the Church is one of the country’s largest and most socially influential institutions.
The seminary is a complex of salmon-colored buildings organized around a chapel with stained-glass windows, eight miles south of Havana.
Since the 1966 property seizure, men studied for the priesthood at an 18th century building in Old Havana that Church officials says is too small for their needs.
The seminary will train new Cuban Catholic priests, who have been in short supply since 75 percent of them left after the revolution.
Bishops from the Vatican and several other countries, including Thomas Wenski, the Archbishop of Miami, the heart of the Cuban exile community in the United States, attended the inauguration ceremony.
Editing by Jeff Franks and Philip Barbara