NEW YORK -- A church full of admiring American supporters in Harlem erupted in applause early Saturday when Cuban leader Fidel Castro told them how pleased he was to shake hands earlier in the week with President Clinton.
"I feel satisfied by my respectful and civilized behavior with the president of the country that had been host of the summit," Castro told the invitation-only crowd at towering Riverside Church.
It was the first time Castro had publicly mentioned the much-discussed encounter between the two leaders at the end of a luncheon of the U.N. Millennium Summit, a gathering of about 160 world leaders. The news was especially encouraging to Americans who support the normalization of relations between the two countries.
Back in his olive green uniform after spending a week in the black suits he favors for presidential gatherings, Castro told the crowd at the end of a far-ranging address about how he encountered Clinton face-to-face for the first time on Wednesday afternoon.
Suddenly, he found himself in a line of leaders being greeted by the American president.
"I couldn't run away to prevent passing by that point," Castro said, growing animated at his speech, which early on was punctuated by the crowd's shouts of "Fidel! Fidel! Fidel!"
"With all dignity and courtesy I greeted him," the Cuban president said. "He did the same, and I moved ahead in line. It would have been extravagant and rude to do any other thing. The whole thing lasted less than 20 seconds."
More than 2,000 people attended the 8 p.m. event organized by Cuban solidarity groups, with many of the invited guests lining up outside the church as early as 4 p.m.
Castro was clearly moved by the affection shown him by the Americans who surrounded him, especially when they sang "Happy Birthday" in belated recognition of his turning 74 in mid-August.
"Dear brothers and sisters," he told them, hugging several children who gave him a plastic-wrapped bouquet of flowers. "You have been extremely generous and kind with us."
"It is only because of miracles that I have survived all these years," alluding to the many assassination attempts against the communist leader during his 41 years in power.
"I came to Harlem because I knew it was here that I would find my best friends," he added. Among those in the church were U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters of Los Angeles and U.S. Rep. Jose Serrano of New York, and the Rev. Dr. Lucius Walker Jr. of Pastors for Peace, all longtime opponents of the 38-year-old U.S. embargo against Cuba.
Other guests included the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, the former head of the National Council of Churches, who campaigned vigorously for the repatriation of 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez to his father in Cuba, even bringing the boy's grandmothers to Washington.
The Riverside Church is an institution in Harlem, where it played a major organizing role in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. It was from this pulpit that the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke out against the Vietnam War and was one of South African leader Nelson Mandela first stops in America after his release from prison a decade ago.
Many in the church wore pins or stickers that said "Free Mumia," a reference to death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal who was convicted in the killing of a Philadelphia police officer. His supporters maintain he did not receive a fair trial and have launched an international campaign for a new one.
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