Cuban Bishops Meet With President Castro


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HAVANA, Cuba, MAY 25, 2010 ( In a historic meeting, representatives of the Catholic Church in Cuba spoke with President Raul Castro about the release of political prisoners, among other items.

The archbishop of Havana, Cardinal Jaime Ortega y Alamino, gave a press conference on Thursday in which he reported on the meeting with President Castro, the first of its kind since Raul replaced his brother Fidel as head of the Cuban government.

The conclusions of the Wednesday meeting, regarded as positive by the Church leaders, point to the eventual release of political prisoners.

Cardinal Ortega y Alamino attended the meeting along with the president of the Cuban bishops' conference, Archbishop Dionisio García Ibáñez of Santiago de Cuba. President Castro was present along with Caridad Diego Bello, head of the Religious Affairs Office of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party.

At the press conference, which took place in the archbishopric of Havana, Cardinal Ortega y Alamino "specified that this meeting cannot be seen from a point of view of compromises, but of conversations that had a magnificent beginning, and which must continue," reported a communiqué on the archdiocesan Web page.

The prelate told representatives of the national press and the international media accredited in Cuba that "matters were addressed of a national character, such as the Ladies in White and political prisoners, conscientious objectors (or counter-revolutionaries, as they are called by the Cuban government), the latter seen in their totality and not just the sick."

He added that no concrete conclusions or dates were solidified, and thus there are no official announcements about the next steps regarding these prisoners, but the authorities are in the process of "addressing the subject."

The cardinal affirmed, "I can say that the subject is being treated seriously."

New paths

He noted that historically, the Catholic Church in Cuba distanced itself because of clashes and difficulties that everyone knows about, but, on this occasion the Wednesday meeting gave "support to the mediating endeavor of the Church and, at the same time, recognition of the role of the Church as interlocutor, which surmounts the old grievances to walk on new paths."

In this regard, Cardinal Ortega y Alamino explained that the meeting was not seen in any way in terms of a Church-State relationship as "strategic alliance," as this phrase is of military or political perspective.

Rather, he said, the Church must act in society, starting from the value for religious liberty guaranteed by the constitution, but never under any type of alliance.

Hence, the prelate said, this meeting was important, as it surmounted old concepts to enter into what is the nature more proper to the Church and its mission in society.

He pointed out that as part of the mediating endeavor of the Church, on two occasions, two priests, Monsignor Ramon Suarez Polcari and Monsignor Jose Felix Perez, visited Guillermo Fariñas, who went on a hunger strike on Feb. 26 to appeal for the release of 26 prisoners of conscience who are ill.

They did not go to request that Fariñas discontinue his hunger strike, the cardinal said, but that, in a more human and religious vein, he would have more confidence in the Church's efforts -- in the sense that some of the things he is requesting might be obtained, while recognizing that in him there is a very respectable position in the order of his conscience, which might be made more flexible by these dialogues, given that a human life is at risk.

Plans for the future

Cardinal Ortega y Alamino highlighted the novelty of the conversation held with the Cuban authorities in the most positive sense of the term, as it "opens a new period," above all if one takes into account that the meeting was not to talk about the problems of the Church, but to talk about Cuba, about the present moment and about the future. "And it was thus for more than four hours," he added.

Thus, Wednesday's conversations entered into "the framework of the usual conciliating and mediating position of the Catholic Church, in every age and country, aware that 'dialogue is the new name of peace,'" said the prelate, quoting Pope Paul VI.

"Unfolded in this climate of seeking peace through dialogue was the meeting held yesterday between the top representatives of the Cuban Catholic Church and President Raul Castro," concluded the communiqué.

Archbishop García Ibáñez spoke further to AFP about the question of political prisoners, noting that "we spoke about it and I believe that on both sides there is a willingness, a desire that this be resolved and we hope it will be."

"I believe it will be," he emphasized, noting that it will be "a process and a process must begin with small steps and those steps will be taken."

This meeting precedes the visit to Cuba of the Vatican secretary for relations with states, Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, which is planned for June 15-20, on the occasion of the 10th Catholic Social Week.

During his sojourn in Cuba he will meet with the authorities of Castro's government and preside over ceremonies for the celebration of the 75th anniversary of relations between the Holy See and that nation.

Relations between the Vatican and the Castro regime improved after John Paul II's visit to Cuba in 1998, when he held an historic meeting with the now former head of state, Fidel Castro.