Church-State Tensions Ease; Cubans Fill Pews

Article excerpt

HAVANA--On a sunny Sunday morning, Alfredo Rojas sat outside Havana's main cathedral drinking a beer while his wife, Elsa, sat inside listening to Cardinal Jaime Ortega's weekly homily.

A 32-year-old Havana native, Alfredo said, although he didn't really know why his wife suddenly started going to church, he respects her decision.

In many ways, this couple reflects church-state relations in Cuba. Both sides admit they do not understand the motivations of the other, but each seems to be making an effort to coexist in an environment less hostile than in the past.

For years, the government and church hierarchy were on opposite sides of a gulf that seemed impossible to bridge. While many church leaders and laypeople were active supporters of the resistance movement to overthrow dictator Fulgencio Batista in the 1950s, relations between church and state fell apart soon after the revolution triumphed Jan. 1, 1959.

The antagonism that has characterized church-state relations for decades was solidified with the Sept. 17, 1961, decision of the government to expel 130 priests and then-Auxiliary Bishop Eduardo Boza Masvidal. The Catholic leaders were accused of being "counterrevolutionaries."

Church-state relations have been tense ever since.

For example, only three years ago, the government publicly criticized Ortega, who was then archbishop, after he scathingly denounced Cuba's economic and political systems as archaic.

But church and government leaders have recently made strides toward greater tolerance. Communists and Catholics alike say the thaw in relations is a welcome change from the past.

"There's no reason why we can't sit down together and talk without fearing each other," said Fr. Carlos Manuel de Cespedes Garcia, vicar general of the Havana diocese and past president of the Cuban episcopal conference.

Indicative of this shift was President Fidel Castro's measured response to the church's condemnation of the downing of two small planes that Cuban government officials say violated Cuban air space in February. Four members of the anti-Castro group Brothers to the Rescue were killed when Cuban missiles struck the planes.

On March 17, the Cuban bishops issued a "Call for Reconciliation and Peace," a statement read in all parishes. The document said the downing of the planes "was excessive and violent and a major setback to all those who believe in moderation as the way to solve the crisis and promote reconciliation among all Cubans."

But, in an uncharacteristic move, the bishops also criticized the U.S. government for tightening the 35-year economic blockade of Cuba through President Clinton's signing of the controversial Helms-Burton bill. The bishops said the measure will only increase the hardships of the Cuban people.

Analysts said they were surprised by the government's tolerance of the church's statement.

"A few years ago the church would not have made such a harsh statement and the government would never have accepted this kind of condemnation," said a member of the Communist Party who follows religious issues, speaking off the record. …