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Rolling out welcome mat for pope, Cuba continues complex relationship with Catholic Church
A poster of Pope Benedict XVI in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolucion, where he will celebrate Mass amid icons of Cuban communism.
March 24th, 2012
10:00 PM ET

Rolling out welcome mat for pope, Cuba continues complex relationship with Catholic Church

By Patrick Oppmann, CNN

Santiago, Cuba (CNN) - Facing the stage where Pope Benedict XVI will deliver his first Mass in Cuba during his visit here this week is a giant neon billboard of a young and victorious Fidel Castro brandishing a rifle.

It would appear to be a poor omen for the pope’s visit, if not for the message printed beside the Cuban leader: “Rebels yesterday, hospitable today, always heroic.” It’s the slogan for Santiago de Cuba, the first stop on the pope’s three-day trip to the island nation.

The freshly erected sign offers insight into the changing, often hard to read, relationship between the Cuban government and the Catholic Church.

After decades of chilly relations between church and state here, including the near dismantling of Cuba’s Catholic Church in the 1960s, the Castro regime is rolling out the welcome mat for the pope’s visit, even if it is offering no apologies for its past actions.

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“Our country is honored to receive his holiness with Cuban patriotism, learning, vocation, solidarity and humanity,” read a front-page editorial published last week in Granma, the Cuban Communist Party daily newspaper, which on most days offers scathing critiques of life in the United States and glorified recountings of the Cuban revolution.

In the weeks leading up to the pope’s arrival, Cuban church leaders have been given greater freedom to speak publicly. Sites the pope will visit are undergoing hurried beautification. And in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución, an altar is being built where the pope will deliver mass to crowds expected to be in the hundreds of thousands.

It’s a marked change from the last (and first) papal visit to Cuba. When Pope John Paul II visited in 1998, the stage was placed off to the side of the square, as if to marginalize his influence. (Some Cubans claimed the aging pontiff was placed in a shadier area as protection from the sun.)

For Pope Benedict, the altar stands in the center of the plaza, the same place where Fidel Castro delivered many of his most incendiary speeches at the height of the Cold War, a point remarked upon by many Havana residents.

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But is the leader of the global Catholic Church receiving more than just lip service from the secular and once officially atheist Cuban state?

The answer is, like nearly all things in Cuba, complex. During John Paul’s visit, he famously called on “Cuba to open to the world and the world to open to Cuba.”

And to some extent, some of those openings have taken place.

The church was considered a threat to the revolution in the days after he took power, Fidel Castro told theologian Frei Betto in the book “Fidel and Religion.”

The Catholic Church, Castro said, was “permeated by reactionary ideas, right wing ideas,” and populated by clergy who “tried to use the church as a weapon, an instrument, against the revolution.”

The church suffered greatly in the backlash, with most of the country’s priests leaving for exile. Religion was transformed into a topic to be discussed in whispers.

But life for Cuba’s Catholics changed with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the lead-up to John Paul’s visit. Christmas was reinstated as a holiday. Cuba went from being an officially atheist state to a secular one. Cubans were told by their leaders for the first time that they could be both openly religious and members of the Communist Party.

Now it is commonplace to see Cubans wear crucifixes and baptize their children. Church attendance, while still low, has rebounded.

But in spite of those advances, many here feel that John Paul’s call for greater openness has still not been realized.

“Perhaps the church can make a case that it’s looking at this whole thing long-term, by small incremental steps, maybe the church feels it’s moving the regime to a more open stance, more democratic reforms,” said Daniel Alvarez, a Religion Professor at Florida International University.

Outside Havana, a Catholic seminary opened just more than a year ago, the first building Cuba’s government has allowed the church to build since the revolution.

The seminary is home to 50 aspiring priests. They are the future of the Cuban church, says seminary rector Jose Miguel Gonzalez, and symbolize the strides the church has taken here.

“We have to keep progressing without fear, respectfully,” said Gonzalez. ”We have to do it despite few resources, the scarcity of priests, the few institutions we have. We don’t have any schools here, hospitals or means of mass communication.”

The church, Gonzalez said, is increasingly being sought out by once ardent supporters of the revolution.

“We have to open our doors to those people who lost their faith in a system,” he said. “An ideology and a humanism that turned out to be utopian and left them feeling cheated.”

But critics argue that the Catholic Church has more resources and power than any other nongovernmental organization in Cuba and that it uses them far too cautiously.

“In this visit the church, the pope have not made any overtures to the dissidents, a very vocal voice in Cuba,” Alvarez said. “The church has a lot of leverage and in the past has exercised it. What we are we wondering is will this pope take a step in that direction?”

Last week, 13 self-described dissidents occupied a Havana church for three days, refusing to leave until their demands to speak with the pope were met. After failing to negotiate the group’s exit, church leaders called in Cuban police, who removed the occupiers.

On Sunday, mre than 70 women who are members of “the Damas de Blanco” group were also detained before being released. The group – all women – hold weekly silent protests outside a Havana Catholic church asking for greater personal freedoms and the release of jailed family members.

While the state calls the women “mercenaries” in the employ of Washington, their protests usually do not lead to wide-scale police action.

The flurry of arrests were quickly criticized by Cuba’s dissident community and Cuban exiles, many of whom were already dissatisfied with the tone of the pope’s trip

“The church is not lifting a critical, prophetic voice against situations that the whole world sees as oppressive,” Alvarez said. “Why can’t the pope or the church insist there be more opening, more democratic reforms, more freedom for the people?”

It is not known how much the pope, a fierce critic of secularism, will press for greater religious freedom when he addresses the Cuban people and meets with President Raul Castro.

During that private meeting, church officials said, Raul Castro’s family has also been invited and officials anticipate that ex-President Fidel Castro may also be present.

If so, it may mark the first time a pope meets with a current and former leader of a communist state.

During a rare speech on Cuban-state television last week, Cardinal Jaime Ortega y Alamino said the pope’s visit is meant to address questions of faith, not politics.

“The pope is determined to revive the faith of Christian countries that need to be re-evangelized,” he said. “The reviving of a sleeping faith, the reviving of a somewhat erased faith but one that was still in the people’s hearts.”

Some of that resurgent faith has been on display in recent weeks, when the Cuban church was allowed by the government to perform the via cruxis, public re-enactments of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion.

As a cooling breeze blew in from the nearby seafront on Friday in the Havana suburb Alamar, a procession of the faithful carried a wooden Jesus Christ through a maze of crumbling, Soviet-built apartment buildings.

“I am so happy, overjoyed,” Alamar resident Delia Betancourt said. “I never thought my family and I would have the opportunity to see the pope twice in our life. It gives us and all of Cuba great hope.”

Addressing the small crowd that gathered for the evening ceremony, Ortega told them to arrive at Mass at Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución early and to wear a good hat to protect them from Cuba’s blazing sun.

The pope, he told the crowd, was traveling to Cuba to mend wounds from the past.

“He wants to be conciliatory pope,” Ortega told the crowd. “That’s to say a pope who unites people, who is capable of building bridges.”

But building bridges in Cuba, where old divisions still stretch wide, may be a fearsome challenge. Even for a pope.

Patrick Oppmann is CNN’s correspondent based in Havana. He also was in Cuba Pope John Paul II’s visit to the island. Follow Patrick on Twitter @CNN_Oppmann for updates on the Pope’s trip to Cuba.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Catholic Church • Cuba • Religious liberty

soundoff (272 Responses)
  1. me

    Why does it seem we only read about the most religious people having the most hatred/controlling/evil ways towards others. I know that can't be the majority of Religious people....

    March 25, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
    • Jesus

      Because that's the way it is. Don't forget that this Pope as a youngster was a loyal and devoted Hitler Youth (who dropped out when the war was all but lost). He learned his lessons well.

      March 25, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
    • Le Cheri

      CAN TWO WALK TOGETHER UNLESS THEY AGREE? HENCE, PROTESTANTS VS CATHOLICS. ( Actually Protestants dont protest Cahtolics anymore, even though this religious system had destroyed millions back in the "Dark Ages")

      March 25, 2012 at 3:18 pm |
  2. Jim

    March 25 – From Spanish news agency EFE: Cuban dissidents denounced arbitrary arrests of dozens of opponents, including 18 Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White) and threats and intimidation before the arrival of Pope Benedict XVI to the island.
    "As a result of the papal visit, the Castro regime has increased its repressive actions and intimidation against peaceful dissidents," said the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCDHRN) in a statement.

    The CCDHRN says it has confirmed 70 arrests in the last four days especially in the province of Santiago de Cuba, where the pope will start his visit to the island Monday.
    The commission states that there have also been threats of arrest and intimidation against many dissidents warning them not to attend the Masses offered by the Pope while in Cuba.

    Las Damas de Blanco, who advocate freedom of political prisoners and human rights, confirmed today in Havana that 18 of its members have been arrested and many others have received threats.

    No matter the reppression, the Ladies in WHite will try to go to the Mass of Benedict XVI at the Revolution Square in Havana, Berta Soler, the leader of the group, told foreign correspondents.
    About 18 members of the Ladies in White attended Mass today at the Havana Church of Santa Rita, as they do every Sunday, and then march silently through nearby streets.
    A similar march last weekend resulted in dozens of them to de detained for several hours.

    "Despite the threat of the repressive forces, we will attempt to go on March28 to the the Revolution Plaza to hear the Mass of the Holy Father, a right we have because no one has the right choose who may or may not participate in a Mass and be close to Good," said Berta Soler.

    Moreover, the CCDHRN also reported that in Havana and Santiago at least a hundred beggars have been arrested or interned "so as not to be seen on the streets by foreign visitors, including pilgrims and journalists, during the visit of Benedict XVI".

    The forced internment of these defenseless and completely vulnerable people is a disgusting violation of human rights", said the group led by activist Elizardo Sanchez.
    At the same time "the government is deploying its enormous bureaucratic mobilization capacity to fill the squares and other places where Benedict would go," according to CCDHRN. Read more EFE (Spanish)

    March 25, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
    • Jesus

      Those dissidents are hertos!

      March 25, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
  3. O'Leary

    Looks like the atheists apes are out in force again. Way too much obsession on pedophilia. They must be NAMBLA members trying to cover their tracks.

    March 25, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
    • AK

      damn near shat meself laughing so hard 😉

      March 25, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
    • Jesus

      That was and is the problem...the Churches focus on pedophilia as a perk.

      March 25, 2012 at 3:17 pm |
    • wrong side of the bed

      Ya ,it would be so much more convenient to ignore the 1000s of bad apples and their protecters.Right?

      March 25, 2012 at 7:42 pm |
  4. Le Cheri

    NOT COMPLICATED AT ALL. THE CATHOLIC CHURCH WANTS ITS POWER IT ONCE HAD. AND THEY ARE GOING TO GET IT. MOST OF US ARE CATHOLIC ANYWAY. "...AND ITS DEADLY WOUND WAS HEALED"

    March 25, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
  5. TownC

    It's encouraging that Cuba is becoming, albeit slowly, more accepting of organized religion. It is ironic that our own country seems to be becoming more unfriendly toward organized religion and is trying to marginalize and even silence it.

    March 25, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
  6. Mike

    Hide your kids the catholic church is coming to town!

    March 25, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
    • f. carter

      Mike your silly!

      March 25, 2012 at 3:17 pm |
  7. Descarado

    If it is complicated, why would anyone expect an atheist propaganda machine like CNN to offer any answers.

    March 25, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
    • AK

      Spot on. Includes the armies of Mom's fried-Twinkie gourmands who crawl out of the woodwork with the same nauseatingly predictable raft of comments.

      Here's more 'predictable'....Soros is waiting with your reward dole. Good doggies.

      March 25, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
    • Jesus

      Meanwhile your Gawd, Rupert Murdoch, worships at the altar of money.

      March 25, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
  8. ingatuma

    Hide your kids, The Worlds Biggest pedophile is coming to CUBA..Escondan a sus niños, el pedofilio mas grande del mundo va a Cuba!

    March 25, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
  9. Johnson

    As a real Catholic, I just hope the Cuban people are not sucked in by Benedict's words. I also hope he is asked if he likes his new custom designed cologne.

    March 25, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
  10. eamon

    Someone is doing a fine job when it comes to not publishing my comments about this saintly child loving pope,who has known how to turn a blind eye over the years to what his fellow child loving priests,bishops and cardinals were up to.

    March 25, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
    • IT"S A CONSPIRACY ! ! ! ! ! THEY ARE OUT TO GET YOU ! ! ! !

      Or maybe not. Maybe there is no human moderator at all, and it's just the computer program that filters out the naughty words, accidentally taking out a lot of legitimate words.

      Can't say "Consti.tution" because it has a tit in it. Can't say "circu-mstance" because it has cum in it.

      You can either look through your post to find the naughty words, or you can howl at the moon about conspiracies and censorship and so on. The former will get better results, but the latter is much more fun for us to read.

      March 25, 2012 at 1:28 pm |
    • Tr1Xen

      I'm so very.... touched... by your comments.... in much the same way little boys are very... um... touched... by the Catholic Church! LOL

      March 25, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
  11. Chismosono .

    It seems to me that a lot of ignorant , stupid and poorly educated , narrow minded people read this site . In my second home , Cuba , they have an expression which when translated says , a closed mouth catches no flies . I think that this applies to some of the readers of this site

    March 25, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
    • fimeilleur

      yes, but flies are highly nutritious. If people there talked more, maybe the political system there would improve, maybe poverty would be stamped out, maybe they'd learn about the pedophiles that are rampant in the Catholic Church... maybe they'd learn that your god doesn't exist.

      March 25, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
    • Popeferatu

      Communism taught them to keep their mouths closed. The corrupt dictatorship of Batista taught them to keep their mouths closeed before that. Only freedom would allow them to open their mouths and be heard – oh what a terrible thing that would be!

      March 25, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
  12. good enough

    Stay in the streets where you are safe brothers and sisters. It is very tough where the Pope lives. Let the Pope filter his successes down to you. And don't always listen when a street kid "tells" because you know there is more than just one person on a power trip in this world! Next it could be you!

    March 25, 2012 at 10:14 am |
    • Say What?

      "It is very tough where the Pope lives"? Is the palatial splendor getting to him?

      March 25, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
  13. Religion is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer is delusional.

    March 25, 2012 at 7:40 am |
    • f. carter

      Says who little man, you? and who in the hell is you,besides a nobody?

      March 25, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
  14. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things

    March 25, 2012 at 5:39 am |
    • Greg

      Lose a finger and try praying for it to come back....prayer doesn't work.

      March 25, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
    • Jesus

      In Nam I recall a soldier praying that a mortar round wouldn't come his way. Within 15 minutes his body was blown hither and yon by a direct hit. So much for prayer.

      March 25, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
  15. Stan Iverson

    CNN sensors I guess?????
    Barley 30 minutes ago I posted here some thoughts on the pope and the catholic church. None of my comments were abusive, nor were there any offensive language used. Imagine my surprise when I later checked back and realized (for the first time, I admit) that CNN sanitized and censored my comments. WOW....I honestly did not know that CNN is a little 'big brother'! I guess I'll think twice before posting again! I am somewhat shocked to be honest!

    March 25, 2012 at 2:57 am |
    • ewa rybnikow

      Yay! Pedophilia has finally come to CUBA!!!

      March 25, 2012 at 3:13 am |
    • LinCA

      @Stan Iverson

      You said, "CNN sensors I guess?????
      Barley 30 minutes ago I posted here some thoughts on the pope and the catholic church. None of my comments were abusive, nor were there any offensive language used. Imagine my surprise when I later checked back and realized (for the first time, I admit) that CNN sanitized and censored my comments. WOW....I honestly did not know that CNN is a little 'big brother'! I guess I'll think twice before posting again! I am somewhat shocked to be honest!
      "

      CNN uses automated censoring that looks for words, or fragments of words, that are considered offensive. My guess is that your post had had a forbidden word in it.

      Repeat posts, even those that were previously censored and not displayed, will show a message stating that you posted it before.

      The following words or word fragments will get your post censored (list is incomplete):
      arse
      bastard
      bitch
      cock
      coon
      cum
      cunt
      douche
      effing
      fag
      ftw
      fuck
      homo
      horny
      jackass
      jap
      jism
      kinky
      kooch
      nipple
      orgy
      pis
      porn
      poo
      prick
      rape
      sex
      shit
      slut
      snatch
      spic
      tit
      twat
      vag
      whore
      wtf

      To circumvent the filters you can break up the words by putting an extra character in, like: consti.tution (breaking the oh so naughty "tit").

      March 25, 2012 at 3:42 am |
  16. Stan Iverson

    I am appalled every time I read of these stories or see a picture of this figurehead of such a diabolical doctrine, dress up to fool the masses to believe that he, or his cult, represent something good.

    March 25, 2012 at 2:26 am |
    • It's weirder than you imagine

      According to Pope Benedict XVI's history, "At the age of five, Ratzinger was in a group of children who welcomed the visiting Cardinal Archbishop of Munich with flowers. Struck by the cardinal's distinctive garb, he later announced the very same day that he wanted to be a cardinal."

      Got that? He joined because of the fashion. Not for the faith, the fashion. Way down in his subconscious, the force driving his ambitions were the fashions.

      March 25, 2012 at 2:32 am |
    • Tommysan

      Yes, he is a fashion queen. He almost immediately reversed all of John Paul II decisions for simpler papal dress and reverted to the ermine stoles and elaborate capes of popes such as the Borgias. Never have seen such an evil look on the face of a modern pope. Makes one wonder what he really was up to in WWII? And his policies are also a throwback, completely undermining the progress made by his predecessor.

      March 25, 2012 at 3:27 am |
    • John

      Your comment is extremely biased and ignorant.You sound like a 19th century 'know nothing' Protestant.Educate yourself

      March 25, 2012 at 6:55 am |
    • John

      'It's weirder than you imagine' you should have read more than that of Ratzinger at age 5 before you come to a conclusion
      Get that?

      March 25, 2012 at 7:09 am |
    • Tiptop

      Bit of a papist are you then, John?

      March 25, 2012 at 8:42 am |
    • f. carter

      Lord, Lord what a wise saying coming from Stan..what else would the little man want to say?

      March 25, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
  17. The Cubans

    Man in a dress, silly hat. Yeah, that guy is going to save us all right.

    March 25, 2012 at 1:47 am |
    • Stan Iverson

      How many here know of his ties to the Nazi Hitler Yungen during WWII??? Check it out. It's true!

      March 25, 2012 at 3:01 am |
    • Vatican Chainsaw Massacre

      It's "Hitlerjugend." And anyway, his services as the Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith put him at the head of the abuse scandal cover-up and stonewalling. That is where his evil lies.

      Just ask yourself why all accusations of abuse anywhere in the world were handled exactly the same way – hide the events, punish the victim, move the offender to another location. All the same way. There had to be a policy that came down from the Vatican or there would have been variances in the response. And who was responsible for these things at the Vatican? The Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith

      March 25, 2012 at 4:12 am |
    • John

      That is because your world view in incredibly narrow. So you might say that a Masai warrior is wearing a miniskirt . Well a profession or culture might have its on dress code which might look alein to you. That is becasue you are unable to see from their point of view.

      March 25, 2012 at 7:02 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      I wonder if you can see things from the point of view of the abused, John.

      March 25, 2012 at 11:30 am |
    • fimeilleur

      Let's not forget, this is the same pope who excommunicated a nine year old girl, her mother and uncle after the 9 y.o. had an abortion due to the fact that her father r aped her... the father went to confession and was forgiven...

      Never will this pope condemn a pedophile.

      March 25, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
    • f. carter

      God us going to save you not the pope, read the bible idiot!

      March 25, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
    • fimeilleur

      @ f. carter,

      please tell us which parts of the bible you'd like us to read? every time I mention the deaths, r apes, beatings, slavery and such, I get yelled at for not reading it right... so if I have to skip over the bad parts to get to the good bits, I don't want to overskip and miss a good bit, there are, after all so few of them in there, I'd hate to overlook one.

      March 25, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
  18. Popeferatu

    Can't they find a picture of the Pope where he doesn't look like a vampire who is about to rip you throat to shreds? One look at the poster and Cubans are going to say "You know, Castro doesn't look so bad in comparison." They will also say "As lousy as the communists are, they didn't molest our children."

    March 25, 2012 at 1:42 am |
    • f. carter

      popeferatu, what kind of name is that...read your stmt, man your smart HAaaaaaaaaaa!

      March 25, 2012 at 3:26 pm |
  19. gliese42

    Its time we accept Cuba but those who hate the Castro brothers should consider the fate of Cubans caught in a political dilemma. If Catholic Christians can accept Cuba than the US should do the same otherwise some Cubans maybe right that the US just want to annex them

    March 25, 2012 at 12:35 am |
  20. toadears

    If I was going to pick a photo of someone to scare children and give them nightmares, it would be this dude right here. Sorry, Catholics. I think it's the vampire teeth.

    March 24, 2012 at 11:02 pm |
    • scarry pope

      LOL @ the scarry sith Lord. A relative of Bush the sith senior I suspect as they all inbreed. Friggin devil.

      March 25, 2012 at 1:00 am |
    • DarthFU

      You don't know the POWER of the Dark Side.

      Seriously, don't insult the Sith like that.

      March 25, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
    • f. carter

      Toadears, we have one for you why don't we show your pictures since you know what a toothless vampire looks like slick!

      March 25, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.