Catholic bishops in Cuba are criticizing the Cuban government for human rights violations and calling for compassion to be shown to dissidents jailed earlier this year in a political crackdown. It is the first time in more than a decade that Cuba's Catholic bishops have spoken out strongly against repression in Cuba.
Cuba's 13 Catholic bishops have issued an 11-page document criticizing the Cuban government's recent crackdown on dissidents and asking for more freedom for Church activities.
At the heart of the document is a plea by Church officials to Cuban authorities to show clemency to those imprisoned earlier this year in a crackdown against dissidents. Seventy five dissidents, independent journalists and democracy activists were sentenced to prison terms ranging for six to 28 years on charges of working to undermine the Cuban state. Governments around the world, including the Vatican, condemned the crackdown. Cuban officials called it necessary, saying those jailed were a threat to national security.
Many of those jailed were involved in the Varela Project, a Church-approved initiative to foster dialogue and greater freedom in Cuba. Hans De Salas Del Valle, a researcher at the University of Miami's Cuban Studies Institute, says Cuba's Catholic hierarchy has felt threatened ever since the crackdown.
"In recent years, particularly in recent months since the political crackdown against dissidents by Fidel Castro's government, the Church, and this is said in so many words in the statement, feels that whatever tolerance or apparent tolerance, had appeared is no longer there," he said. "The regime is increasingly encroaching on free space that was given to the Church as an institution to operate."
The Church document issued this week also restates the long-held Church position that it serves as a neutral political force in Cuba and is not aligned with either dissidents or the government. It repeats earlier demands by Church officials for more freedom for the Catholic Church to carry out its mission to operate schools, build churches, gain access to Cuba's state run media and allow foreign priests to work in Cuba.
Following a historic visit to Cuba by Pope John Paul in 1998, Cuba's government relaxed some restrictions against church activities, and allowed more dissident activity on the communist-run island.
This week's statement by the Catholic Church comes on the 10th anniversary of a previous statement issued by Church officials that called on Cubas government to open a dialogue with its own citizens.