Church's Charitable Works Face an Uphill Struggle in Cuba

Regime Sees Religion as Alien, Says Archbishop of Havana

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HAVANA, JULY 20, 2003 ( Freedom of worship, but not religious freedom, is a reality in Cuba that makes it extremely difficult for the Church to carry out its charitable works, says an archbishop.

Religious freedom implies the «possibility to transmit the Christian view on the great ethical and social problems and, therefore, to have access to the media, which in Cuba belongs to the state,» explained the archbishop of Havana, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, in the July 6 issue of the Italian magazine Famiglia Cristiana.

According to the cardinal, the possibility of opening Catholic schools or being present in the public school system, as well as collaborating in the solution of the acute social problems, are also elements proper to religious freedom.

The preparations and development of the Pope’s 1998 trip to the island gave rise to hope in society that Cuba would open to the world and vice versa.

«It has not been like this,» the cardinal said. «And now, instead of hope, there is despair.»

In fact, in the summer of 1998, a few months after the Holy Father’s trip to Cuba, a «strong ideological campaign began according to the propaganda schemes and mobilization typical of the ’60s, at the start of the revolution,» Cardinal Ortega said.

«I spoke with Fidel Castro in 2001 and he told me that the ‘battle of ideas’ was not aimed directly against the Church, but that its objective was to conquer young people for the revolution,» the prelate said.

The campaign does not have philosophical elements inspired by the old scientific atheism and does not aim at the Church, yet «it is undeniable that religion continues to be considered as something completely alien to society,» he added.

This situation means that organizations such as Caritas face many obstacles. In Cuba, Caritas helps the poor, «but it lacks juridical recognition,» the Havana archbishop explained.

Every day, more than 50 people knock at the doors of Caritas’ Havana offices, begging for food, clothes and medicines. «We cannot always satisfy their requests, because we are receiving less aid from the United States and Europe,» said the organization’s director, Lionel Pérez.

Moreover, the task of organization, more than that of direct distribution of aid, lies in coordinating charitable help in the parishes, where at least 2,000 volunteers work.

A retired chemical engineer, Pérez, 65, has been a permanent deacon since 1991. He said that «requests for help have grown in recent years in a parallel way to the increase in poverty.»

«We try to respond by working on two planes,» he explained. «On one hand, as intermediaries between donors and the government. The food, medicines and school materials we receive from abroad must be handed over to the authorities, who then classify them. But we carry out a documented control of the distribution.

«The second plane involves the parishes: supplying soup kitchens, home help for some 8,000 elderly people who are alone, support for families with children with Down syndrome.»

The lack of juridical recognition of Caritas is reflected in difficulties in, for example, the importation of medicines. Moreover, «we do not always obtain permission to acquire, paying in dollars, construction material to help the neediest families to repair their homes,» Pérez said.

«There are difficulties stemming also from officials of a certain level, perhaps worried that through Caritas, the Church might make itself too visible in Cuban society,» he added. «These obstacles do not make us desist from the duty to be good Samaritans to our neighbor.»

For its part, the Rome-based Community of Sant’Egidio has been present in Cuba for 11 years. It has 250 volunteers on the island, including 50 in Havana. In the popular Regla neighborhood it has a «School of Peace» where every week it gathers some 50 children of troubled families.

Sant’Egidio volunteers help these children with their homework and engage in activities with them that highlight the values of peace. In addition, they offer spiritual and moral assistance to the elderly in a residence.

The Catholic Women’s Movement, active in 25 Havana parishes, promotes monthly diocesan meetings on topics connected with the role of the laity in the Church and in society.

Presided over by biologist Sara Vásquez, the movement also offers workshops for women in difficult situations, such as young mothers, and abused or abandoned wives. Sewing, embroidery and jam making are endeavors that help to balance the domestic budget and «increase the self-esteem of people who are frequently rejected.»

John Paul II’s visit to Cuba resulted in the rapprochement of many Cubans with the Church. However, «the most interesting phenomenon is the multiplication of small communities around ‘houses of prayer,'» Cardinal Ortega said.

Given the shortage of church buildings in Cuba, Christians often gather to pray and reflect on their faith in neighbors’ homes. The meetings are led by women religious or trained lay people, the cardinal explained.

«In these ‘houses of prayer’ children are also prepared for the sacraments of Christian initiation, and the catechumenate of adults is organized,» he said. «In Havana alone we have 250 small communities, some of which have become parishes.»

These parishes do not have a regular priest. «The shortage of clergy does not only affect the diocese of Havana. There are 320 priests in the entire country. There is a list of foreign priests waiting to work in Cuba, but permissions only arrive bit by bit.»

This is not the only obstacle to carrying out pastoral care, as there are restrictions for the purchase of computers, of material to repair churches, and of means of transportation.

The cardinal observed: «Our episcopal conference is, perhaps, the only one in the world which lacks access to Internet.»

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