Cardinal’s action clouds Pope’s visit to Cuba
Pope Benedict XVI’s three-day visit to Cuba starting Monday will begin under a cloud: human rights groups are appalled by Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega’s decision to call the police to evict peaceful dissidents who had sought refuge in a church to draw international attention to their demands for civil rights.
According to an official Cuban Roman Catholic Church communiqué published in the Cuban regime’s daily Granma, Ortega asked the police to evict 13 dissidents on March 14 after they had occupied the Our Lady of Charity church in Havana.
Following their forced eviction by anti-riot police clad in black uniforms, the dissidents, including an 82-year-old man, said they were beaten and taken to a police station, where they were interrogated for five hours before being conditionally released. They had wanted to submit a petition to the pope, and to voice their demands for democracy and human rights, they said.
How usual is it for a cardinal to ask police to evict peaceful protesters from a Church, I asked some of the biggest international human rights groups and best-known international law experts.
Recalling my days as a foreign correspondent during the rightist dictatorships of South and Central America, and judging from what I read from what happened in Poland and other communist dictatorships in Europe, I couldn’t recall any incident like this one. I’m not alone on this.
“I have never seen anything like this,” said Jose Miguel Vivanco, head of the Americas department of the Human Rights Watch advocacy group, referring to the dissidents’ eviction. “This is the result of a Church hierarchy that is obviously subordinated to the Cuban government.”
Vivanco recalled that in 1977 and 1978, during Chilean dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s regime, hundreds of relatives of missing people regularly sought refuge in churches to draw international attention to their demands. Many spent long periods of time there, without ever being forced out.
“It wouldn’t have crossed any Chilean bishop’s mind to call the police,” Vivanco said. “Chilean Cardinal Raul Silva Henriquez used to say that the Church was there to give a voice to those who didn’t have a voice. The Church never allowed the state security services to get even close to churches.”
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