Dissidents in church want pope to mediate

A group of 13 Cuban dissidents who have occupied a Havana church for two days are no longer demanding an audience with Pope Benedict XVI when he visits this month, but vowed Thursday to continue their protest.

HAVANA, Cuba — A group of 13 Cuban dissidents who have occupied a Havana church for two days are no longer demanding an audience with Pope Benedict XVI when he visits this month, but vowed Thursday to continue their protest.

The dissidents say they are now asking the pontiff to mediate a list of their grievances with the Cuban government, said Fred Calderon, a spokesman for the group, in a phone interview from a closed-off room in the Central Havana Church of Charity where he and 12 others have holed up since Tuesday.

Calderon complained that Catholic officials had refused to bring them food, even though the dissidents have offered to pay for it. He said the group had not eaten anything since the protest began, though they are drinking water.

Numerous phone calls to the church’s spokesman in Havana went unanswered, and he did not respond to an email seeking comment.

But the occupation has clearly angered Catholic officials, who have been friendly to and mediated for other dissidents in the past.

The church remained partially shuttered Thursday, with no sign of police outside. Traffic was normal and adjacent stands selling flowers and handicrafts were operating as usual.

Calderon said his group wants Benedict to speak with authorities about freeing people imprisoned for political crimes, ending intimidation of dissidents, increasing access to information, expanding private property rights, doing away with travel restrictions and establishing a transitional government to end a half-century of Communist rule under Fidel and Raul Castro.

“We want him to intercede on our behalf … and be a mediator for our demands,” Calderon told The Associated Press.

Such a result seems unlikely given the church’s forceful rejection of the protest so far, which spokesman Orlando Marquez termed “illegitimate” and “disrespectful.” Even prominent Cuban dissidents have questioned whether disrupting a house of worship was an appropriate tactic.

Cuba’s government has had little to say, but generally considers dissidents to be mercenaries trying to undermine its authority. State media, which rarely mentions the opposition, published the Catholic Church’s condemnation of the occupation in Thursday’s papers.

“Nobody has the right to turn temples into political trenches,” read the communique from Marquez, which was issued the previous evening.

Calderon said he was aware of the negative response, but vowed not to blink.

“We will not leave,” he said. “We do not see the church as a trench but as a refuge.”

A high-ranking priest from the Havana archdiocese has visited the dissidents several times and offered to bring a government official to talk to them, Calderon said.

None of the eight men and five women inside the church has a noted history of activism, and they apparently are not members of a single group, though Calderon said he belonged to an organization called the Republican Party, one of the many small outfits that make up the fractured opposition.

More prominent dissenters such as the Ladies in White and blogger Yoani Sanchez generally sought to distance themselves, while expressing sympathy for the group’s demands.

“These are new people,” said Elizardo Sanchez, head of the Havana-based Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation and a de-facto spokesman for dissidents. “We are being cautious.”

However Yoani Sanchez, no relation to Elizardo, said she thought the Church overreacted.

“Although I have many criticisms of the act of occupying a church, I have a worse opinion of the archdiocese’s statement published in (Communist Party newspaper) Granma,” Sanchez tweeted.

Many of the more-established dissidents have significant ties to the Catholic Church, which in 2010 helped broker the release of the last of 75 opposition activists and social commentators imprisoned in a 2003 crackdown. The last was freed in spring 2011.

Cuban authorities dispute dissident claims the government holds political prisoners.

Most of the inmates still behind bars for political crimes were convicted of violent offences such as hijacking and armed assault, which keeps them from being recognized as prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International.

Benedict’s Cuba trip is scheduled for March 26-28.

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