Dissidents in Cuba
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Prayers for greater freedom, social justice in Cuba

Prayers for greater freedom, social justice in Cuba
by Father Joseph D. Wallace, December 9, 2016

Years ago, when I was in the seminary, I became friends with a fellow
seminarian who is now Father Manuel Rios, pastor of Saint Mary of the
Assumption Parish, in Elizabeth, N.J., and who remains a dear friend of
mine. Manny’s family came to this country when he was a young man to
live in West New York, N.J. Many times I stayed at Manny’s house and was
spoiled by his mother’s wonderful cooking and the warmth of the wider
Cuban community who lived in great numbers along Bergenline Avenue that
ran through such places as Union City and West New York.

It wasn’t hard to pick up after a short time being around the exile
Cuban community in this area, known as “Havana on the Hudson,” that they
had no time for Fidel Castro. They viewed him as a brutal dictator who
imposed great suffering on those who opposed his brand of Marxism that
included suppression of religion on the island.

Since his death the other week, both political and religious leaders
have worded their responses and condolences very carefully. It is
because of his rather duplicitous legacy on the world scene. The vast
majority of Cubans prior to Castro were devout Roman Catholics. In fact,
Castro was baptized and raised in the Catholic Church as a child, but
would later say in an interview in a documentary that “I have never been
a believer.”

When Castro suppressed all Catholic institutions in Cuba in 1962, Saint
John XXIII excommunicated him.

Of course, Roman Catholics were not the only religious community
affected by Castro’s anti-religious sentiments and persecutions. The
Jewish community which numbered over 30,000 before his revolution is
presently down to fewer than 1,000 living in Cuba today.

It really was not until the 1990s that Castro begun loosening his vice
grip on religious freedom on the island. In 1992 he actually allowed
practicing Catholics to join the Communist Party in Cuba. His rhetoric
about religion also started changing at this time, describing his
country as “secular” rather than his earlier description of “atheist.”

In 1998, Saint John Paul II visited Cuba, the first pope to ever visit
the island. Castro and John Paul treated each other with respect and
dignity during the visit. Castro even donned secular clothes rather than
his usual fatigues (used to continue the notion of revolution). The
result of that meeting was that Castro formally reinstated Christmas Day
as an official celebration since he abolished permission to celebrate
Christmas in 1969. He also allowed for religious processions to resume
again. The pope sent him a telegram at that time thanking him for this
new permission for Christians.

Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I came to Cuba to
consecrate the Orthodox Cathedral and bestowed an honor on Castro for
building and donating the church in the heart of Havana.

In 2012 Castro had a 30 minute audience with Pope Benedict XVI during
his visit to Cuba. Benedict, who advocated ending the American embargo
on Cuba, also encouraged a more open society in Cuba. During Pope
Benedict’s visit, Castro asked what popes do with their time and asked
the pope his opinion on the changes that have taken place in the church
over the last century.

Pope Francis visited Cuba and met with Castro on Sept. 20, 2015, when
they discussed such things as protecting the environment and the
problems of the modern world. Pope Francis is also credited for helping
to broker the restoration of diplomatic ties between the U.S. and Cuba.
After the restoration of full diplomatic relations between the two
countries last year, Pope Francis in a statement quoted the Cuban hero
and independence fighter, Jose Marti, when he said the restoration “is a
sign of the victory of the culture of encounter and dialogue, ‘the
system of universal growth’ over ‘the forever-dead system of groups and
dynasties.’”

In a 2009 spoken autobiography, Castro said that Christianity exhibited
“a group of very humane precepts” which gave the world “ethical values”
and a “sense of social justice,” as he added, “If people call me
Christian, not from the standpoint of religion but from the standpoint
of social vision, I declare that I am a Christian.”

While we all hope that the death of Fidel Castro may lead to greater
freedom and social justice in Cuba, the jury is still out. Even after
the lifting of religious repression laws back in the 1990s the Castro
regime was reported by the U.S. Commission on International Religious
Freedom’s 2016 report that Cuba’s “government designated 2,000
Assemblies of God churches as illegal and ordered their closure,
confiscation or demolition.”

Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski of Miami, where many exiles from Cuba live,
summed things up well when he said, “His death provokes many emotions,
both in and outside the island. Nevertheless, beyond all possible
emotions, the passing of this figure should lead us to invoke the
patroness of Cuba, the Virgin of Charity, asking for peace for Cuba and
its people.”

Father Joseph D. Wallace is director, Ecumenical and Inter-religious
Affairs, Diocese of Camden.

Source: Prayers for greater freedom, social justice in Cuba | Catholic
Star Herald –
catholicstarherald.org/prayers-for-greater-freedom-social-justice-in-cuba/

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