Comité Nacional por la Libertad de los Cinco Cubanos

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Castro interested in prisoner exchange with US, says Cardinal Bertone

Feb. 29, 2008
Reprinted from Catholic News Agency

ROME, Feb 29, 2008 / 01:58 pm (CNA).- In an interview with the L’Osservatore Romano and Vatican Radio, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone reflected on his recent visit to Cuba and said dialogue between the Church and the State is necessary. He also said Raul Castro is willing to "exchange prisoners" with the United States.

Recounting his meeting with Cuba’s new president and with other officials, Cardinal Bertone said, "Discussions began initially with the exchange of impressions about Cuba and about the vitality of the Catholic Church. Later I met privately with the President face to face for 55 minutes. I presented him with a specific request and the new President responded positively."

The Vatican Secretary of State said one issue addressed with the Cuban president "refers to the action of the bishops’ conference." "The recognition of the Catholic Church’s legal status is one concrete problem that exists," he stated.

Cardinal Bertone also revealed that he discussed the issue of political prisoners with the President. "I gave President Raul a list of names of prisoners for consideration [to be released] for humanitarian reasons, respecting always the sovereignty of Cuba," the cardinal said, adding that he also expressed his concern for the families of those detained.

In response, Cardinal Bertone said, "the President emphasized the importance of reciprocity at the international level. He said he was willing to address all the problems with great openness and even to make concrete gestures in an atmosphere of reciprocity." In that regard, Cardinal Bertone mentioned "the crucial problems of Cuba" related to the US-led embargo and the European Union sanctions, which "slow its development and do not allow for the serious socio-economic difficulties that afflict the island to be faced."

The Vatican cardinal said President Castro also brought up the issue of five Cuban prisoners in the United States and their humanitarian treatment, "with the eventual possibility of an exchange." He also stressed that since the embargo directly affects the inhabitants of Cuba, he "gave assurances that the Holy See would work to have these sanctions reduced, if not altogether eliminated."

However, he emphasized that "this would certainly imply movement towards greater freedom, towards the recognition of personal, social, political and economic rights" by the Cuban government.

Cardinal Bertone summarized his visit to Cuba by saying, "The results have far surpassed the expectations in all that I have seen of the vitality of the Cuban Church in all of her components and initiatives."

Vatican official: Cuban church has vitality, some degree of freedom

by John Thavis
Feb. 29, 2008
Reprinted from Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- A top Vatican official, summarizing his weeklong trip to Cuba, said he encountered a church with great vitality and a government willing to make gradual concessions.

"I would say it went beyond my expectations, considering how the situation (in Cuba) is presented by the media or seen from the outside," Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Vatican secretary of state, said in a lengthy interview with the Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, Feb. 29.

Cardinal Bertone said that during his Feb. 20-26 visit he was able to discuss specific church-state problems with the government and that the local church would now carry forward those talks.

But the cardinal emphasized that, despite some limitations, the church in Cuba enjoys a certain degree of freedom of expression and worship.

Asked why he avoided the term "persecuted church" during his visit, Cardinal Bertone responded, "Because the church in Cuba is not a persecuted church."

While the government exercises vigilance and control over church activities, he said, "in some way there exists the possibility to express one's faith, even publicly."

While visiting a medical school, for example, he saw that Catholic students were able to express their church identity and their commitment to promoting Christian values in society, he said.

Likewise, he said, there have been government concessions on public worship, small gains in church-run media and progress on visas for foreign church personnel. The state even helps to restore some older church buildings, he said.

Although the church recognizes it is working under limitations, "we should accept these small steps that have occurred over the last 10 years and which are continuing today," he said.

Echoing what he said in Cuba, Cardinal Bertone strongly criticized the U.S. embargo against Cuba and similar economic sanctions imposed by the European Union.

"Those who suffer most from the embargo are the people -- in this case, the Cuban people," he said. He added that the Vatican would continue to work so that economic sanctions are eased, if not eliminated.

Cardinal Bertone said that in his lengthy meeting with Cuba's new president, Raul Castro, he was able to draw attention to several concrete problems, including:

-- Spiritual assistance to Catholic and non-Catholic prisoners. The cardinal also said he presented Castro with a list of prisoners who might be released on humanitarian grounds. The president, citing the principle of reciprocity, raised the case of five Cubans currently imprisoned by the United States, suggesting the possibility of an exchange, the cardinal said.

-- Permission to construct new churches and other church buildings.

-- Legal recognition of church entities, in particular for the aid agency Caritas, which the cardinal said was "highly respected" by the Cuban government.

Cardinal Bertone said the church and the president share a concern about the loss of traditional values among Cuban young people. On this issue, he said, there was agreement that "the church can make a great contribution."

The cardinal said he considered it a positive sign that on Feb. 28 Cuba signed two U.N. human rights agreements that had long been opposed by the government.

Cardinal Bertone said he was told that Fidel Castro, who resigned as president two days before the cardinal arrived, followed his visit carefully and reacted to his talks in various Cuban cities.

Everywhere he went, the cardinal said, he found a fond memory of Pope John Paul II, who visited Cuba 10 years ago. He said he believes Pope Benedict XVI also wants to visit Cuba and will give serious study to the government's renewed invitation.



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