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The Pope in Cuba

Nina Shea

Pope Benedict XVI arrives in Cuba this afternoon, at a time when many Cubans are desperate to be rid of the 53-year-old Castro dictatorship. Some suggest that this should be the “Cuban Spring.” One burning question is whether the pontiff will press for political change, or be preoccupied solely with improving the lot of the Catholic Church.

This is a false dichotomy. In communist Cuba, the fate of the people and the Church is closely intertwined.

The Holy Father’s visit is timed for the 400th anniversary of Cuba’s patroness, Our Lady of Charity of Cobre, whose image was found floating in the waves off the Cuban coast in 1612. The pope today will go to Santiago de Cuba, where tomorrow he will pray at the Cobre Basilica, which enshrines the original Marian statue. This antique image of Charity is beloved by Cubans, and church authorities took it throughout the island last year as a unifying national symbol one more authentic than the hammer and sickle.

This focus on Our Lady of Charity is not without political overtones. It dramatizes the indispensable role of the Cuban church. It is both the keeper of Cuba’s cultural flame and the island’s largest private charity. Since 1991, the Catholic Church within rigid limits and frequent setbacks has been allowed to undertake charitable activities. Despite its widely touted medical expertise, Cuba now heavily depends on Church-provided essential medical aid and humanitarian assistance. Within a few years after the collapse of the country’s patron, the Soviet Union, Catholic Caritas Cuba was receiving or overseeing roughly 75 percent of Cuba’s medical aid. This makes the Church the country’s largest non-governmental organization and a social force.

The regime, however, still has a firm hold on power. And the Church, like the country at large, is still recovering from three decades of very bloody persecution between 1960 and 1991, followed by two more decades of suffocating regulatory control, which continues to this day. In pre-revolutionary Cuba, 85 percent of the populace was baptized Catholic. When Pope John Paul II made his historic visit in 1988, this figure was only a fraction of one percent. Today Catholics are 60 percent of the population, though church attendance is low; with Protestants, another 5 percent.

Thus, re-evangelization is the Vatican’s primary mission. As Havana’s Cardinal Ortega gently put it in a rare appearance on Cuban state television this month: The Holy Father aims to revive “a faith that is a little sleepy, a little erased.”

Erased, indeed. Within two years of Fidel Castro’s seizing power, 3,500 priests, nuns and preachers had fled or been forced from the island. Ordinary Christians and their leaders were also labeled “social scum” and jailed in prisons and labor camps for lengthy terms under ghastly conditions. One was the cardinal himself, who was interned in a labor camp in the 1960s.

Religious services were disrupted, church property was vandalized, and believers were blocked from educational and job opportunities. All Christian broadcasting was summarily canceled, Christian publication was halted, and Catholic schools were shuttered.

Christmas and Easter were abolished as officially recognized holidays in 1970, replaced by secular observances honoring the revolution and its heroes. School children were ridiculed for their belief in God. In 1978, the Communist Party of Cuba platform supported the “progressive elimination of religious beliefs through scientific-materialistic propaganda.”

It was not until after the Soviet’s glasnost, in the late 1980s, that Cuban religious policies shifted from eradication to registration and strict regulation. All religious groups must now be registered with and heavily monitored by the local Communist party officials. Protestant churches are particularly burdened by invasive registration rules; those who refuse are subject to harassment and jail. Religious schools and broadcasts for all churches remain forbidden (not until 2010 was the Catholic Church able to even broadcast Easter Mass).

Today, the Christians most severely punished are human-rights dissidents such as the noble Ladies in White, who process to church each week in a silent protest about the imprisonment of their loved ones, and Dr. Oscar Biscet. Imprisoned for 12 years, mostly in solitary confinement, Biscet was released last year. In his Wall Street Journal op-ed, on March 21, he described his experience:

I personally witnessed prisoners left for 12-24 hours with their hands and feet handcuffed behind their backs, stripped naked in groups , without any regard for human modesty, tortured physically and psychologically with tasers, beaten to death for requesting basic medical attention, and kept for months in cells without ventilation, natural light, drinkable water or restroom facilities.

It is up to the Church, the strongest independent institution amidst the Castros’ rubble, to defend human rights. And it does, for both Catholics and non-Catholics.

Though the diplomatic Cardinal Ortega has been criticized for timidity in countering the Castros, the brave Dr. Biscet and 115 other prisoners were released over the past two years due to the cardinal’s intervention. For nearly two decades, the cardinal and Cuba’s other bishops have spoken out about the need for national reconciliation and a dialogue in which all Cubans can participate. And, as the U.S. State Department reported last year: “Some prominent religious leaders were openly critical of the government, including the Catholic cardinal, whose criticisms circulated domestically in Catholic print and electronic publications.”

Pope Benedict will probably have much to say during his private meeting with Raul Castro tomorrow, and in several public appearances including outdoor celebrations of Mass, later today and on Wednesday before he leaves.

In remarks to reporters traveling with him, Benedict has already laid out the large framework of his political message on Cuba:

“Today it is evident that Marxist ideology in the way it was conceived no longer corresponds to reality. . . . New models must be found with patience and in a constructive way.” He emphasized that his church wanted to avert a violent transition and “to help in the spirit of dialogue to avoid trauma and to help bring about a just and fraternal society.”

When will other world leaders speak up as forthrightly?

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