Dissidents occupy Catholic church in Cuba

A poster welcoming Pope Benedict XVI is placed at the entrance of a church/AFP

HAVANA, Mar 15 – With a papal visit looming, dissidents occupied a Catholic church demanding Pope Benedict XVI press for political freedom in Cuba, religious and dissident sources said.

Cuba’s Catholic church slammed the move as “illegitimate and irresponsible”.

“This is a coordinated, planned strategy by groups in different regions around the country. It is not some whim… it was arranged apparently to create critical situations ahead of Pope Benedict XVI’s visit,” said a statement from the archdiocese led by Havana Cardinal Jaime Ortega.

The protesters, five women and eight men, are members of the outlawed opposition Republican Party of Cuba (PRC), group member Julio Beltran told AFP.

The group entered the Our Lady of Charity church in central Havana late Tuesday and spent the night. By late Wednesday, they were still on the scene.

Police stood guard in the area but did not intervene, and the archbishop’s office said the authorities had promised not to enter the church.

The protesters’ demands include unconditional freedom for political prisoners, an end to repression and persecution of regime opponents, access to uncensored news and freedom of travel.

Benedict is scheduled to visit Cuba — the only one-party Communist ruled nation in the Americas — from March 26-28, 14 years after Pope John Paul II’s historic visit in January 1998.

Roberto Betancourt, a priest at the church, said he received a letter from the protesters, who promise to leave once they received a response from senior church clerics.

The local Roman Catholic church, led by Cardinal Ortega, has urged Cubans not to hold political protests ahead of or during the pontiff’s visit. And church officials slammed use of the church for non-spiritual activities.

“Any acts that seek to turn places of worship into a place for political demonstrations, disregarding the authority of the priest or the right of most people who go there in search of spiritual peace or prayer time, certainly are illegitimate and irresponsible,” the archdiocese statement said.

It also acknowledged that “similar situations” have developed around the Caribbean nation of 11.2 million “but occupiers already have left the churches.”

A bishop’s office source told AFP another group of demonstrators had occupied the cathedral in the northeastern city of Holguin on Tuesday but “left voluntarily”.

Elizardo Sanchez, who leads a dissident group association, said of those protesters “they were thrown out” by Holguin bishop’s office staff.

Some Cuban opposition members are critical of church cooperation with the Communist state, which has included mediating the release of political prisoners. But the church is the most influential non-state actor in a society overwhelmingly controlled by the government.

After decades of official atheism, the Cuban regime now has more cordial relations with the Catholic and other churches. Most Cubans, however, do not consider themselves practicing Catholics.

The pope is scheduled to fly to Santiago de Cuba on March 26, following a visit to Mexico, and celebrate mass in the same town square where John Paul II celebrated services. President Raul Castro will welcome him.

The pope will then make a private visit to El Cobre, just outside Santiago, Cuba’s second largest city on its eastern end. This year marks the 400th anniversary of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, a statue of Mary found in the sea off the village and Cuba’s patroness.

Government party officials said at a meeting over the weekend in Santiago that during the pope’s visit “no political slogans, political signs, or audiovisual messages of any kind will be allowed.”

Benedict will then fly to Havana, where Cardinal Jaime Ortega will greet him. The pope, 84, is to again meet the president, 80, and may meet his brother, longtime Cuban leader Fidel Castro, 85.

The pope is scheduled to wrap up the visit on March 28 with a mass in Havana’s sprawling Jose Marti Revolution Square, where government rallies are routinely held.

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