A small group of dissidents who identify themselves as members of the Republican Party of Cuba (PRC) continued to occupy a Havana church Thursday, demanding a response to their grievances, despite the fact that the Catholic Church rejected the use of its churches for political ends.
«We want to talk to someone from the government, but in the presence of the Church and the national and foreign press, and we want our president, Ibrahim Vos (who lives in the United States) to be allowed into the country,» Fred Calderón, one of the 13 dissidents occupying the Basílica Menor de Nuestra Señora de la Caridad church in the capital since Tuesday, told IPS by phone.
The dissidents originally demanded that their message be delivered to Pope Benedict XVI, who will arrive in Cuba on Mar. 26 in the second visit by a pope to this country after Pope John Paul II (1978-2005) came in 1998.
On Thursday morning, the central nave of the church was open to the faithful, who pray and leave offerings to our Lady of Charity, Cuba’s patron saint. IPS also found that things were calm outside the church.
«The temple is sacred. These people should not try to use the Church for their political ends,» said a flower vendor outside the church.
In a statement to the press issued Wednesday and published by the official Communist Party newspaper Granma Thursday, the office of the archbishop of Havana described the occupation as «illegitimate and irresponsible» and said it was «a strategy prepared and coordinated by groups in several regions of the country.
«It is not a chance event, but well thought-out, apparently with the purpose of creating critical situations as the visit of Pope Benedict XVI approaches,» added the text signed by the spokesman for the archbishop’s office, Orlando Márquez. The pope will fly to Cuba from Mexico, the first stop on his Latin America tour.
«No one has the right to convert temples into political trenches. No one has the right to disturb the celebratory spirit of Cuba’s faithful, and of many other citizens, who await the visit of the Holy Father Benedict XVI to Cuba with joy and hope,» the statement adds.
Dissidents have also criticised the occupation of the church. «These people should act sensibly, leave the church and respect the pope’s visit, which is not political but pastoral, on the occasion of the 400th anniversary of the discovery of Our Lady of Charity, which is a symbol that unites us all,» Miriam Leiva told IPS.
The independent journalist was referring to the 1612 discovery of a small statue that is kept in the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre near the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba.
In Leiva’s view, «people can see this dissident action as something negative, and reject it, when what we have to achieve is unity.
«Besides, we can’t expect the pope to come and do what we ourselves must do. There are other ways of expressing our convictions,» she said.
The demands of the group include the release of prisoners, higher wages and pensions, a halt to persecution of dissidents, the right to own private property, to create alternative sources of information, and to have access to Internet, «a legal framework for a state of law,» and freedom to travel abroad.
Dissident economist Oscar Espinosa said the occupation of the church creates a situation of instability that runs counter to the spirit of the visit by Pope Benedict, «who brings a message of unity and rationality that the country needs.
«I cannot support this opposition measure,» said Espinosa, one of the 75 dissidents who were sentenced to lengthy prison terms in 2003 but have all been released from prison since.
Espinosa defended the role played by the Church in Cuban society. «This institution acts as a bridge between all Cubans, who need understanding, and who need to seek dialogue instead of seeing each other as enemies. It’s hard, but with respect, progress can be made in the midst of diversity.»
The dissident action, which included the occupation of churches in different parts of the country – which had all been brought to an end by Thursday – began a few hours before the TV broadcast of a message from the archbishop of Havana, Cardinal Jaime Ortega.
In his address, Ortega said the pope feels he is coming to confirm the sleeping «and perhaps slightly faded» faith that is nonetheless present in the heart of Cuban society. The archbishop recalled the large crowds who welcomed the Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre statue on the 2011 pilgrimage around the country held to mark the 400th anniversary of her discovery.
Ortega’s speech, broadcast on Cuba’s main state-controlled TV channel, came on the heels of an editorial published in Granma on Monday that praised the pope’s visit as a sign of the «excellent» and uninterrupted relations between the Holy See and Cuba.
Cubans will welcome and accompany the pope from his arrival in Santiago de Cuba, the editorial said. «His Holiness will find a people sure in their convictions, noble, educated, calm and organised, who defend the truth and listen with respect,» it added.
The 1998 visit by Pope John Paul II marked the start of a climate of greater religious openness and more relaxed relations with the Church. A new landmark along that route was the dialogue between Ortega and President Raúl Castro in May 2010.
The talks led to the release of 130 prisoners and the recognition of the Catholic Church as a valid interlocutor on national issues, in the search «among Cubans» for solutions to the country’s problems, without outside interference.