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NCC President Elenie Huszagh Visits Cuba

             January 30, 2002, NEW YORK CITY -- On her first-ever Sunday in Cuba, Jan. 20, National Council of Churches President Elenie Huszagh began the day with one of the world’s oldest Christian communities and ended with one of the newest.  What’s more, she witnessed Cuban ecumenical history as those two communities – Greek Orthodox and Pentecostal – drew closer together.

            Mrs. Huszagh, an attorney and Greek Orthodox lay leader from Nehalem, Ore., spent two full days in Cuba, Jan. 20-21, the guest of the Greek Orthodox Church and Greek Embassy there.

Elenie Huszagh with Ormara Nolla, Cuban Council of ChurchesThe (U.S.) National Council of Churches (NCC) took advantage of her visit to introduce her to Cuban church life and the ecumenical movement, specifically the Cuban Council of Churches, with which the NCC has maintained relations since before the Cuban Revolution in 1960.   She was accompanied by the Rev. Oscar Bolioli, a Methodist who is the NCC’s Associate General Secretary for International Affairs.  (In photo: Mrs. Huszagh, left, with Ormara Nolla, Vice President of the Cuban Council of Churches)

            Sunday morning, Mrs. Huszagh participated in the liturgy and groundbreaking for a new Greek Orthodox church, St. Nicholas Church, in Old Havana.  Sunday evening, she attended services at the Free Pentecostal Church where Marcial M. Hernandez, Executive Secretary of the Cuban Council of Churches, is pastor.

            Congregants stood for a good part of both long services, and after each, Mrs. Huszagh stood some more, greeting other worshippers.  “My entire body was in my ankles by the end of the day,” she commented.

            Most significant was Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Athenagoras’ announcement at the end of the morning liturgy that the Greek Orthodox Church would apply for membership in the Cuban Council of Churches.  That Council currently counts 25 mainline Protestant and Pentecostal bodies along with 11 ecumenical groups as members. 

The Greek Orthodox Church’s membership application has yet to be processed formally, but Cuban Council of Churches leaders, with whom Mrs. Huszagh met on Monday (Jan. 21), were enthusiastic.  “For the first time in more than 40 years, the Cuban Council of Churches will be more than pan-Protestant,” Mrs. Huszagh said.  “All agree that the presence of the Orthodox will enrich the Council.  For its part, the Greek Orthodox Church wants to be part of the Cuban ecumenical movement.”

The Greek community in Cuba dates back to the turn of the 20th century.  The Saints Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church in Havana served the sizeable business and diplomatic community there, but it was converted into a theater during the Cuban revolution and the Orthodox community scattered.

The St. Nicholas Church groundbreaking marks the reorganization of the Greek Orthodox Church community in Cuba, which is part of the Mexico City-based Metropolis of Panama and Central America, led by Metropolitan Athenagoras since it was established in 1997.  Now recognized by the Cuban government, the Greek Orthodox Church in Cuba hopes both to build the new church and to recover Saints Constantine and Helen Church for worship.

(Coincidentally, Mrs. Huszagh returned from Cuba to Boston, where she brought greetings at the annual meeting of the Massachusetts Council of Churches on Jan. 23.  At the meeting, that Council began its second 100 years by receiving the Greek Orthodox Diocese of Boston, which became its first Orthodox member communion.)

Huszagh with Cuban Church LeadersMrs. Huszagh (pictured, left, with Cuban church leaders) said she was impressed with the “extent and complexity” of the 61-year-old Cuban Council of Churches’ work, which includes a Youth Department, a Women’s Department and the Medical Commission, working to organize donations of medicine and establish health programs to meet needs precipitated by the economic crisis in Cuba.  Other departments include Assistance to Disabled Persons, Communications, and commissions working on finance, ecumenicity, ecclesiastical renovation and Christian education.  The Projects Department is charged with developing social programs in such fields as agriculture and energy.  The wide-ranging work of the Council’s Studies Center includes interfaith dialogue.

            Cuban church leaders expressed their appreciation for the (U.S.) National Council of Churches’ consistent friendship over the years, and for food, medicine and other material assistance provided through Church World Service, the global humanitarian ministry of the NCC and its 36 Protestant and Orthodox member denominations.

“The distance from the United States to Cuba is so small,” Mrs. Huszagh said.  “We are in the same small part of the world.  We need to be in contact and to be helpful to each other.   For many years the churches were the only link between Cuba and the United States.  Christians can relate to each other in ways that countries cannot.”

            The St. Nicholas Church groundbreaking was attended by many guests and dignitaries, including representatives of Cuba’s churches and of the Cuban Council of Churches, Cuba’s Director of Religious Affairs and Vice Minister for Foreign Relations, the historian of Old Havana, the Roman Catholic Cardinal Jaime Ortega and Papal Nuncio in Cuba, and 20 ambassadors, including the head of the U.S. Interests Section in Cuba.

            Liturgists included Metropolitan Athenagoras, a Russian Orthodox priest from Havana, ta Greek Orthodox deacon and two Greek Orthodox priests – one, a native Cuban and the other, a native Colombian.  The service was partly in Spanish, partly in Greek.  At the conclusion of the liturgy, Bishop Dimitrios of Xanthos, Ecumenical Officer of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, representing His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, read a message on the Ecumenical Patriarch’s behalf.

            While in Cuba, Mrs. Huszagh also had meetings with Cuba’s Director of Religious Affairs, the Vice Minister for Foreign Relations and the National Assembly President and visited a school for people with Down’s Syndrome.

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