Raul Castro sits down with Cuban Roman Catholic cardinal in rare meeting

By Andrea Rodriguez, AP
Thursday, May 20, 2010

Cuban president meets with church leader

HAVANA — President Raul Castro has held a rare sit-down with Cuba’s Roman Catholic cardinal and another top cleric, discussing many issues including a recent crackdown against dissidents that ended only after the mediation of the church.

The meeting with Cardinal Jaime Ortega and Archbishop Dionisio Garcia was a sign of the church’s growing influence on the island. The talks went on for more than four hours, Garcia told The Associated Press on Thursday. Garcia, the archbishop of Santiago, is also leader of the Conference of Bishops of Cuba.

It was the first time the head of the Conference of Bishops has met with the country’s leader in five years, when Fidel Castro was still in charge. Fidel stepped down formally in 2008, turning leadership over to his brother.

“It was a very positive meeting,” said Garcia, who attended the Wednesday afternoon gathering at the Palace of the Revolution, the seat of Cuba’s government. A photo of a beaming Raul Castro with the two church leaders was printed on the front page of Thursday’s Communist-party daily Granma, but the caption said little about what was discussed.

Garcia did not go into specifics about the meeting, but indicated topics included the government’s decision to bar the dissident Ladies in White from holding weekly marches. The group — comprised of the wives and mothers of jailed political prisoners — were stopped from protesting for three straight weekends in April and pro-government counter-protesters were brought in to shout abuse at them.

The standoff ended after Ortega’s mediation, when the government agreed to allow the quiet protests to resume in return for assurances the women would not expand their activities.

Garcia said that he thought “that there was good will” on the part of the government on the issue of dissidents.

The government denies it holds political prisoners, and says dissidents are paid mercenaries of Washington, which has been at odds with Cuba since shortly after Fidel Castro overthrew dictator Fulgencia Batista in 1959.

Ortega has waded into politics several times in recent months, telling a church magazine in April that Cuba was in its worst crisis in years and that its citizens were clamoring for political and social change sooner rather than later.

The meeting between Castro and the church leaders comes a month before Vatican Foreign Minister Dominique Mamberti is scheduled to visit Cuba for talks on the island’s economic challenges and the effects of emigration and the families torn apart by it.

Mamberti is the first top Vatican official to come since Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, secretary of state to Pope Benedict XVI, visited Cuba in February 2008.

Relations between the church and Cuba’s government have often been strained. Tensions eased in the early 1990s when the government removed references to atheism in the constitution and allowed believers of all faiths to join the Communist Party. They warmed more when Pope John Paul II visited Cuba in 1998.

Associated Press writer Paul Haven contributed to this report.

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