October 5 , 2007

Catholic 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 of Cuba.

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 1998 visit.

"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 interview.

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 repression.

Serpa, who was in Rome, was unavailable for comment, according to his secretary.

"What has happened with Vitral and the civic center … demonstrates that 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 said.

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 comment.

A Cuban government official familiar with church-state relations said recent changes in the church were "strictly internal matters."

"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

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