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RIGHTS-CUBA: Incident Could Hurt Relations With Catholic Church

Patricia Grogg

HAVANA, Dec 7 2007 (IPS) - A police raid on a church in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba to arrest a group of dissidents was called “a deplorable incident” by a member of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, who said it could harm the good relationship between the Catholic Church and the Cuban government.

“It is to be hoped that (the incident) does not damage relations, and I believe that we should all do our utmost to keep this from happening,” Monsignor José Félix Pérez Riera, assistant secretary of the Cuban Conference of Catholic Bishops, told IPS.

On Tuesday, undercover police kicked down the door of the parish hall attached to the church of Santa Teresita in Santiago de Cuba, 847 kilometres from Havana, and burst in violently to arrest several dissidents dressed in black, who had marched some 20 blocks to the church demanding the release of one of their number who had been previously detained.

According to international press reports, out of the two dozen dissidents gathered in the church building, five were arrested.

Elizardo Sánchez of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, a dissident group, said on Thursday that they had all been released a few hours later.

Pérez Riera said the bishop’s conference has not made an official declaration, nor has it approached the authorities to discuss the matter, because this is the prerogative of the archbishop of Santiago de Cuba, Dionisio García, who is personally looking into it.

The government agency which deals with the different religious organisations in the country is the ruling Communist Party’s Department of Religious Affairs, headed by Caridad Diego.

Pérez Riera is also the parish priest of the Havana church of Santa Rita, where Sunday mass is attended weekly by the Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White), the wives, mothers and other relatives of 75 dissidents who received harsh sentences in 2003, on charges of conspiracy with the United States to subvert the Cuban state.

“There has never been any trouble, for which I am thankful, because these ladies are completely respectful, they come to mass and behave impeccably. They have always carried out any political demonstrations outside the sanctuary,” he said.

After mass, the women march through the streets near the church, demanding the release of their loved ones.

The Catholic Church’s work in support of human rights tends to be extremely discreet in this country. “It’s a style that is very much our own, after the manner of Jesus when he said ‘let not your left hand know what your right hand is doing’. But I also believe that discretion can be far more effective,” said Pérez Riera.

At a press conference, Sánchez said the police incursion was an “outrage, and a profanation of the Santa Teresita church.” He stressed the raid must have been premeditated because “the police authorities knew, hours ahead of time, that the demonstrators would be going to the church.”

In his view, this event, together with brief arrests of “dozens” of dissidents in recent weeks, is part of a campaign to discourage and demobilise any demonstration by “peaceful dissidents” on Dec. 10, International Human Rights Day.

In telephone interviews with IPS, local residents of Santiago de Cuba said the disturbance at the Santa Teresita church were not common knowledge around the city. “It’s just part of a prearranged soap opera, a series of incidents to carry on the campaign to discredit dissidents, now that the human rights issue is being raised,” said an anonymous source.

In November, Havana persuaded the United Nations to put an end to the mission of a special rapporteur tasked with observing the human rights situation in the country, which is a matter of constant confrontation with Washington. The withdrawal was seen as a victory for Cuban diplomacy.

The government and the Church leadership maintain what they both call good relations, which are steadily improving, although in the past they were extremely tense at times.

Catholic Church authorities in this Caribbean island nation are preparing for the visit of the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, in January 2008, to mark the 10th anniversary of the visit to Cuba of Pope John Paul II (1978-2005).

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