Dissidents occupy Cuba church, seek papal audience

By Andrea Rodriguez

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, March 14 2012 2:01 p.m. MDT

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.

Franklin Reyes, Associated Press

HAVANA — 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.

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 any police presence, and activity appeared normal on the surrounding streets.

The dissidents were in an area that is off-limits to worshippers, according to dissident William Cepera. He said he had spoken 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 entry.

"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.

Cuba, which considers the dissidents mercenaries bent on undermining the government, 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 help of the Catholic Church.

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 the head of the Havana-based Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation, confirmed that there were 13 people inside the Central Havana 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.

Phone calls to the spokesman for the Catholic Church in Cuba were not answered Wednesday, nor did he respond immediately to an email query. Government officials also did not immediately answer a request for comment.

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.

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

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