church losing strength in Cuba
Ray Sanchez. Sun-Sentinel,
September 30, 2007.
Santiago de Cuba - On a January morning
nearly 10 years ago, Archbishop Pedro Meurice
introduced a papal mass here in the island's
second-largest city by boldly accusing the
state of corrupting the moral traditions
The frankness of his message, delivered
in a province known as the birthplace of
the Castro brothers' revolution and with
Defense Minister Raúl Castro sitting
before him, drew applause from many of the
100,000 in the audience. The late Pope John
Paul II nodded his approval.
Meurice was a quiet, reclusive prelate,
and many religious leaders hoped that the
reaction to his words and the pope's visit
portended a new role for the Roman Catholic
Church in socialist Cuba.
Now 75 and retired here in his native city,
Meurice said hopes for improved church-state
relations have been dashed. In the intervening
years, he said, the state has quietly stripped
the church of gains that came with the historic
"In the end, we have not accomplished
what we're entitled to; the Catholic Church
has not been granted the right to evangelize
and spread without fear of losing its religious
freedom," Meurice said in a recent
In the year since President Fidel Castro
has been ill and out of the public eye,
analysts and religious leaders point to
the fate of a popular Catholic magazine
and civics workshops in the western city
of Pinar del Rio as dramatic examples of
tighter church control.
The most recent blow came earlier this
month when the Diocese of Pinar del Rio
canceled a popular series of workshops on
dealing with topics like democracy and freedom
of association. In April, Pinar del Rio's
new bishop, Jorge Serpa, dismissed the editor
of Vitral magazine, Dagoberto Valdes, one
of the workshop moderators. The magazine
routinely looked at issues of liberty and
Serpa, who was in Rome, was unavailable
for comment, according to his secretary.
"What has happened with Vitral and
the civic center
significant restrictions are now being applied,"
Valdes said. "I'm being prudent in
using the word 'restrictions.' I think these
services are being eliminated."
After the 1959 revolution, Cuba officially
embraced atheism. Practicing Catholics and
other believers were viewed with suspicion
and discriminated against until 1992, when
Cuba declared itself a secular state and
permitted Catholics and others to join the
Communist Party. But religious schools have
remained closed since the early 1960s, when
hundreds of priests and church workers were
expelled or jailed.
Many Cubans on both sides of the Florida
Straits hoped Pope John Paul II's arrival
on the island would have the same result
as an earlier visit to his native Poland
- to spark the collapse of communism. But
the Polish church was strong and organized,
while Cuba's had much less influence.
Around the time of the papal visit, there
were small strides: The state legalized
Christmas as a goodwill gesture to the pope;
missionary efforts in rural areas increased;
religious processions returned to the streets;
and proselytizers were allowed to spread
the Gospel from door to door.
But the transcendent changes many expected
never materialized. A decade later, masses
are sparsely attended except on major holidays
like Christmas and the September feast of
Our Lady of Charity, Cuba's patron saint.
No new churches have been built in Cuba
since before the revolution. "The church
has serious difficulties with the repair
and maintenance of its temples," Meurice
The government has denied the church access
to the Internet and strictly limited access
to state-controlled media. Earlier this
month, for the first time since the revolution,
Santiago's new archbishop was allowed to
deliver a brief radio message on the feast
of Our Lady of Charity, Meurice said.
In April, Cuba's top Catholic leader, Cardinal
Jaime Ortega of Havana, acknowledged that
the church found itself in a "delicate"
position after Castro's illness was announced
in July 2006.
"At the outset, when the Cuban president
fell ill, some believed that an internal
crisis would arise," he told the Spanish
newspaper El Pais. "The bishops made
a vote that no outside interference or any
type of internal crisis should alter the
peace and the coexistence." Ortega
and his spokesman were unavailable for further
A Cuban government official familiar with
church-state relations said recent changes
in the church were "strictly internal
"The state had no influence on their
decisions," he said. He spoke on condition
of anonymity because he was not authorized
to comment officially to a foreign journalist.
Meurice said: "Below the surface,
very little has changed. While the state
is no longer officially atheist, there is
still only one party, the Communist Party."
Ray Sánchez can be reached at email@example.com.