Raúl Castro lights Hanukkah menorah at Havana synagogue

Cuba’s President Raul Castro lights a Hanukkah candle during a ceremony at the Bet Shalom synagogue in Havana, Cuba, Sunday Dec. 5, 2010, Juan Tamayo reports for the Miami Herald.

Cuban ruler Raúl Castro participated in a Hanukkah ceremony with Havana’s Jewish community, a first for him that was described by one analyst as part of his outreach to religious institutions at a time of economic crisis.

Castro’s visit also came as Havana holds in jail a Jewish-American subcontractor for the U.S. government on allegations of delivering illegal satellite communications equipment to Jewish groups on the island.

The Communist Party’s Granma newspaper devoted one-third of its front page Monday to a photo and story on Castro’s visit Sunday to the Shalom synagogue in Havana. His brother, Fidel, made a similar visit in 1998 when he ruled Cuba.

Castro wore a suit and a yarmulke as he lit the first candle of the menorah during the Hanukkah celebrations, the eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem in the 2nd century BC.

He told the congregation that he had enjoyed his visit and hoped to return to talk about “the Hebrew community in Cuba and the fabulous history of the Hebrew people,” according to Granma.

The Granma story and a Cuban television report on the ceremony did not mention Gross, who on Dec. 3 marked one year in jail. The Potomac, Md., subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development has not been officially charged.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has urged Cuba to release Gross on humanitarian grounds, and asked Jewish-American organizations to lobby the Castro government.

Castro’s synagogue visit appeared to be part of his efforts to reach out to the island’s religious institutions, said Enrique López Oliva, a Havana academic who specializes in religious issues.

He took part in the the Nov. 3 inauguration of an addition to the Catholic church’s San Carlos and San Ambrosio seminary in Havana, along with Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega. The expansion was the first Catholic construction on the island under the communist system.

His synagogue visit “is part of an overall policy trying to show a growing improvement in the relations between the government of Cuba and the Cuban religious institutions,” López Oliva said.

The policy is designed to project “a bit of normalcy at a time there’s a strong tension because of the economy,” he told El Nuevo Herald by telephone from Havana.

Castro’s plans to slash state subsidies and lay off 500,000 public employees, López Oliva added, “is creating a climate of confusion among the people, who don’t know what the future is going to be.”

For the original report go to http://www.miamiherald.com/2010/12/06/1960340/raul-castro-lights-hanukkah-menorah.html#ixzz17OtjqJba

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