Cuba Relations With Catholic Church at High Point
World | Associated Press | Updated: December 25, 2014 11:43 IST
HAVANA: Golden rays of tropical sunlight slant through the caved-in
roof of Saint Thomas de Villanueva chapel, illuminating tiles graced by
the faces of saints. Vandals shattered the stained-glass windows and
scrawled their names on the thick walls during decades of frigid
relations between the Roman Catholic Church and Cuba's communist government.
But a new chain-link fence surrounds the building, protecting it for a
future that once seemed unimaginable.
The church is planning to restore the building to its former glory,
along with more a dozen more churches, parish houses and other
buildings, as part of a quiet reconciliation between the Catholic Church
and the Cuban government that has brought relations to a historic high
point this Christmas. Authorities have also given permission for the
construction of the first two new churches in more than five decades.
After years of bridge-building behind closed doors, the Cuba-Vatican
rapprochement burst into the headlines last week when the US government
credited Pope Francis with helping facilitate the secret reconciliation
talks between the US and Cuba. Francis wrote the leaders of both
countries to invite them to resolve their differences.
"We ask the Lord to continue moving forward this process of
reconciliation and peace that Pope Francis has favored and supported,"
Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega said in his homily at a Christmas Eve Mass
in Havana's colonial cathedral.
Church officials and experts said the mediation and the renovation and
construction of churches were essential parts of a fundamental shift in
the dealings between the church and the communist state, which has been
hostile toward religion for decades.
Developments "are heading in the same direction: a new chapter in the
general and economic history of Cuba, and also church-state relations,"
said Enrique Lopez Oliva, a religious historian at the University of Havana.
The church and the Cuban state were in a state of open hostility in the
years immediately after the 1959 revolution that put Fidel Castro in
power, a time when some anti-Castro militias used churches to store weapons.
Some priests were sent to labor camps. Churches were confiscated and
used by the government as warehouses, bakeries, dining halls or schools.
Openly practicing Catholics were barred from holding public office and
membership in the Communist Party. For the faithful, even winning
admission to a university could be difficult, and the ubiquitous
neighborhood watch committees kept an especially watchful eye on them.
But a thaw began in the 1990s as Cuba removed a constitutional clause
declaring the country an officially atheist state. Pope John Paul II
paid a momentous visit in 1998 and urged a new era of openness between
Cuba and the world. After Benedict XVI visited in 2012, Cuba made Good
Friday an official holiday.
Christmas decorations are increasingly visible in office buildings and
homes each year. However, the church has made little headway in its hope
for more access to state-controlled airwaves and permission to run
Earlier this year the editors of a church magazine that has been one of
the few independent publications in the country resigned, citing
internal pressures from some who felt it was becoming too political.
According to a church member with direct knowledge of the matter, the
handover of properties was mentioned during negotiations between Castro
and Cardinal Ortega in July 2010, when the church mediated the release
of a group of jailed dissidents.
The properties include two churches, a parochial house and other real
estate that was being used as stores in Santiago, Cuba's second-largest
city; two plots of land and a chapel in the Bayamo-Manzanillo Diocesis;
and the College of Jesuit Priests, a huge building that occupies more
than a city block in Cienfuegos.
"It's a very positive gesture by authorities, restoring to a certain
extent what belongs to the church, and above all it creates an
atmosphere of trust," the Rev. Jose Felix Perez, adjunct secretary of
the Cuban Catholic Bishops' Conference, told The Associated Press. "It's
all happening, it must be said, gradually."
Ortega has publicly welcomed Castro's economic and social reforms, which
have enabled hundreds of thousands of Cubans to work for small private
businesses and made it much easier for islanders to travel overseas.
Those reforms have not extended to political change, and the Communist
Party is still the only one allowed.
Despite the gradual opening, experts say the percentage of Cubans who
are practicing Catholics remains well below that of most of the rest of
Latin America. For many Cubans, Christmas is a day off work to hang out
with family and neighbors, with no spiritual component whatsoever.
Joel Dopico, president of the Cuban Council of Churches, said other
evangelical and Protestant churches are also receiving properties from
the state. He had no precise figures, but said the returns were less
than what the Catholic Church has gotten.
"I think very highly of this state policy to return some properties,"
Dopico said. "It is part of the transformations that that are taking
place in the country, where more and more the church will be able to
carry out its work and support for the community."Story First Published:
December 25, 2014 10:48 IST
Source: Cuba Relations With Catholic Church at High Point -