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  • 09 / 25 / 2007

Cuban archbishop: Religious freedom slowly spreading on island
A top Catholic prelate in Cuba says religious practice is slowly spreading in the communist nation despite restrictions.

Archbishop Dionisio Guillermo Garcia Ibanez, named earlier this year to lead Catholics in Santiago, Cuba's second-largest city, said the church has been able to expand its reach, though it will be years before it achieves goals of even more openness.

"The faith of our community has manifested, it has been reborn," he said in a recent interview during a visit here. "The Catholic faith in our community has resurrected."

Garcia would not pin the loosened restrictions on Fidel Castro's decision to temporarily hand over the government last year to his brother Raul. He said he has witnessed piecemeal improvements since his ordination in 1985.

Catholics once hoped simply to knock on doors and spread the Gospel, Garcia said, a dream that has since been realized. They prayed they could hold religious processions in the streets; he says there have now been more than 90. They pushed for Catholic radio broadcasts, which are now allowed once or twice a year.

"Hope is relative," the 62-year-old archbishop said after a Mass at Ermita de la Caridad, the spiritual heart of Cuban exiles here. "We always need to work toward what we think is necessary, is fair."

Garcia was cautious in his statements and steered away from any criticism of the Cuban government, for which his predecessor, retired Archbishop Pedro Meurice Estiu, became known. One of Garcia's hosts, Bishop Felipe Estevez, said he was encouraged by the changes the archbishop noted, but said Catholics need to understand Cubans are still living in a closed society.

"That is a society that is not pluralistic, it is unidimensional and somehow they have to live with that reality," said Estevez, an auxiliary bishop with the Archbishop of Miami who was born in Havana and came to the U.S. as a teenager. "They are kind of talking out of adversity."

Despite huge expectations, Pope John Paul II's 1998 visit to Cuba never brought the transcendent changes many wanted. The pontiff urged the island to "open to the world" and called for Castro to increase liberty for the church and society.

"Life in Cuba continues without greater transformations," the archbishop acknowledged.

Cuba became officially atheist in the years after the 1959 revolution that brought Castro to power. Although diplomatic relations between the Cuban government and the Vatican remained intact, and religious observance was never outlawed, practicing Catholics and believers of other faiths were often viewed with suspicion or amusement.

The Cuban government removed the constitution's references to atheism more than a decade ago and allowed believers to join the Communist Party. But religious schools have remained closed since the early 1960s, when hundreds of foreign priests and religious workers were expelled. Abortion remains free and readily available.

"We are in that process of finding new roads for presence of the church, of understanding that faith is not only something private," Garcia said. "Many years of experience have to pass for this state to not only accept the beliefs of others, of its citizens, but also to realize that the sincere evidence of the faith signifies a good thing for the country."

Estevez noted no new churches have been built in Cuba in 50 years, that Catholics still have no schools, newspapers or regularly broadcast radio programs.

"If you are Catholic, you cannot study law, you cannot study psychology, or you cannot study political science," he said. "They don't want that thinking in the leadership."

Although John Paul's influence was considered key to the collapse of communism in his native Poland, the church has had much less say in Cuba. Garcia said Catholics on the island don't ask why they haven't followed a similar path.

"Every country, every town has to find their own road to reconciliation," he said. "Every country should find with honesty their own way to find the way for their people. It's not healthy to make comparisons."

Source: By Matt Sedensky, Bradenton Herald.

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