Cuban police remove dissidents from Havana church

March 16, 2012 - 1:45 AM
Cuba Pope Dissidents

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. (AP Photo/Franklin Reyes)

HAVANA (AP) — Cuban police evicted 13 dissidents from a church they had been occupying for two days demanding that Pope Benedict XVI air a list of grievances during his upcoming trip to the island, a Roman Catholic Church spokesman said.

The protesters were removed from the Church of Charity in densely packed Central Havana late Thursday at the request of the city's cardinal, church spokesman Orlando Marquez said in a statement.

"Cardinal Jaime Ortega addressed the competent authorities to invite the occupiers to abandon the sanctuary," the statement said.

The dissidents were removed without resistance, it added.

"The agents who carried out the operation had assured the Church they would be unarmed, that they would initially take the 13 persons to a police station and then to their homes. It also said they would be processed," Marquez said.

The dissidents initially occupied the church on Tuesday to demand an audience with Benedict when he visits Cuba this month. They later changed their demand and said they wanted the pontiff to mediate a list of their grievances with the Cuban government.

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

Fred Calderon, a spokesman for the dissidents, said his group wanted 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.

The church had forcefully rejected of the protest, which spokesman Orlando Marquez termed "illegitimate" and "disrespectful." Even prominent Cuban dissidents 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 mention 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.

None of the eight men and five women who were 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, often-ephemeral outfits that make up the fractured opposition.

Another dissident in the church said the protesters averagd about 40 years old and none are currently employed. They included homemakers, restaurant workers, university graduates and retirees, said Vladimir Calderon, who is not related to Fred Calderon.

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."

Sanchez predicted that dissidents' ties to the Catholic Church would not suffer since the established opposition has not backed the occupation.

However Yoani Sanchez, no relation, said she thought the Church overreacted in its statement.

"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 offenses 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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Follow Andrea Rodriguez on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ARodriguezAP.