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PENALVER, Cuba (Reuters) - The Roman Catholic Church will open on Wednesday its first new seminary in Cuba in more than half a century in a further sign of its improving relations with the island's communist-led government.
Workers this week put the final touches to the salmon-colored complex of buildings organized around a chapel with stained-glass windows, eight miles south of Havana.
The seminary replaces a similar complex expropriated by Cuba's communist authorities in 1966 and transformed first into a military barracks, then a police academy. A seminary is a school that teaches theology and religious history and prepares students for priesthood.
Catholic officials said Cuban President Raul Castro was expected to attend the inauguration -- reflecting the more cordial relations between the Church and the government.
The two sides for a long period were at odds following the 1959 revolution that put Fidel Castro in power and transformed the island into a communist state.
Since Raul Castro took over the presidency in 2008 because of his elder brother's failing health, he has pursued better relations with what is one of the country's largest and most socially influential institutions outside of the government.
"He knows what the construction of this means to us. The president is well disposed toward the Church and he is showing that with his presence at the inauguration," Antonio Rodriguez, rector of the San Carlos and San Ambrosio seminary, told Reuters.
Cuban Catholics view the project as a step toward the opening of new spaces for religion in Cuban society.
"Undoubtedly, it raises the visibility of the Church. We have to look at it with hope," Rodriguez said.
President Castro turned to the Church this year to serve as an internal interlocutor as he faced growing international pressure over political prisoners and human rights.
Cuban Church leader Cardinal Jaime Ortega negotiated with him the ongoing release of more than 50 political prisoners and, according to Western diplomats, opened an unofficial line of communication between Cuba and the United States, which do not have full formal diplomatic relations.
The construction of the new seminary, a project aspired to by the Catholic Church since the ground-breaking visit of Pope John Paul II to Cuba in 1998, received strong support when Raul Castro came to power, church officials said.
Before the Pope's visit triggered a warming of relations, Cuba's bishops were often highly critical of the government.
There were incidents of dissidents shouting "Freedom" and "Free political prisoners" during Catholic church masses, with protesters dragged off by plain-clothes government agents.
After the seminary was taken over by the government in 1966, it operated in an 18th century building in Old Havana that it eventually outgrew.
For a long time, construction of a new seminary appeared to be "unthinkable," Rodriguez said.
Along with its political significance, the seminary will also train new Cuban Catholic priests, who have been in short supply since 75 percent of them left after the revolution.
To help celebrate the inauguration of the new facility, bishops from the Vatican and several countries are due to attend, among them Thomas Wenski, the Archbishop of Miami, the heart of the Cuban exile community in the United States.
Cuba's government helped facilitate the purchase of construction materials and other aspects of the seminary project, which was financed with donations from the Episcopal Conference of Italy, the Knights of Columbus in the United States and Catholic groups in Germany.
Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Will Dunham