Dissidents occupy Cuba church, seek papal audience

1 / 2
Pedestrians walk near the Virgin of Charity of Cobre Catholic church where thirteen Cuban dissidents have holed up to press for a meeting with Pope Benedict XVI when he visits, in Havana, Cuba, Wednesday March 14, 2012. Benedict's visit is scheduled for March 26-28. (AP Photo/Franklin Reyes)

HAVANA (AP) — Thirteen Cuban dissidents have holed up in a Roman Catholic church in Havana to press for an audience with Pope Benedict XVI when he visits in two weeks, saying they want to air their grievances about human rights on the island.

Some other dissidents and a church spokesman denounced the move, which was apparently meant to be part of coordinated protests at churches across the island that were later abandoned.

The Church of Charity of Cobre in teeming Central Havana was semi-shuttered Wednesday and only pilgrims visiting an image of the Virgin of Charity of Cobre, Cuba's patron, were permitted inside. There was no sign of police, and activity appeared normal on surrounding streets.

The dissidents were in an area that is off-limits to worshippers, said dissident William Cepera. He said he spoke with them through a window that was later closed.

"They entered the church last night and stayed. They will not budge from there," he said.

Cepera added that he and a colleague from their small opposition group, the Nov. 30 Democratic Party, tried to join the group but were not allowed in.

"We would like to talk with the pope and tell him that the government of Fidel and Raul (Castro) has released only some prisoners, but other political prisoners remain," he said.

Church spokesman Orlando Marquez said the protest was disrespectful to the pope, as well as to ordinary Catholics hoping to visit the church to pray.

"Nobody has the right to turn temples into political trenches," he wrote in a forcefully worded statement. "Nobody has the right to disturb the celebratory spirit of faithful Cubans and many other citizens who look with jubilation and hope toward the visit of the Holy Father, Benedict XVI, to Cuba."

Marquez called on the group to leave immediately. He added that while Catholic officials would listen to and help anyone who sought their assistance, they "cannot accept attempts to devalue the nature of its mission or put in danger the religious freedom of those who visit our churches."

Government officials did not immediately answer a request for comment. Cuba considers the dissidents mercenaries paid by Washington and bent on undermining the government.

The government also says it does not hold any political prisoners. Authorities freed the last of 75 anti-government activists and social commentators arrested in a 2003 crackdown on dissent last year, under a deal brokered with the Catholic Church's help.

Others remain behind bars for politically motivated but violent crimes like armed assault or hijacking, which keeps them from being recognized as prisoners of conscience by human rights watchdog Amnesty International.

In December, President Raul Castro's government also pardoned 2,900 inmates, most of them convicted of minor crimes, in connection with Benedict's March 26-28 visit.

Elizardo Sanchez, a de-facto spokesman for Cuban dissidents as head of the Havana-based Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation, confirmed there were 13 people inside the church.

"We hope for a humane outcome. The occupation was peaceful," said Sanchez, adding that a high-ranking church official visited Tuesday night and spoke with the protesters.

Benedict does not have any announced plans to meet with Cuban dissidents during his trip, which is focused on religious activities including Masses in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba and in Havana.

Dissidents' reactions to the visit have differed.

Bertha Soler, leader of the Ladies in White opposition group, said they asked church officials for "one minute" with Benedict to talk about human rights and political prisoners.

But well-known opponents such as Guillermo Farinas, winner of the European Union's human rights prize, and former prisoner Martha Beatriz Roque, signed a letter urging the pontiff to stay away.

"Your presence on the island would be like sending a message to the repressors that they can continue to do as they please, that the Church will allow it," the letter read.

There also was some division over the church occupation.

"Personally, the act of taking the precinct of a church as a place of protest strikes me as invasive and disrespectful," prominent anti-government blogger Yoani Sanchez tweeted.

Elizardo Sanchez, who is not related to Yoani, said he does not think the protesters are acting in bad faith or trying to disrupt the pope's visit, but he did question their choice of tactics.

"We think of churches as houses of God, not anyone's private property, and a priest cannot throw the people out," he said. "We don't approve of this method (of protest), but their demands, yes."


Andrea Rodriguez is on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ARodriguezAP.