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Many hope Pope Benedict will address tough issues in Cuba

For centuries, pilgrims have come to the Our Lady of Charity shrine with wishes for a cure for ill health, a better economy, and improved relationships. Now Cubans inside and outside the island also have a long list of wishes for Pope Benedict XVI when he visits Cuba to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the discovery of a statue of the Virgin.

Benedict, who begins a two-country visit in the central Mexican state of Guanajuato on Friday, will arrive in Santiago de Cuba on March 26 to mark the the Jubilee year of the discovery in the Bay of Nipe. The statue of the Virgin, who became Cuba’s patron saint in 1916, is now ensconced in a shrine in El Cobre, a mining town about 12 miles northwest of Santiago.

The pope has said he comes to Mexico and Cuba as a pilgrim of charity “to proclaim the word of Christ and the conviction that this is a precious time to evangelize.’’

But the list of topics those in South Florida hope he will address is long, ranging from calling for Catholic education in Cuba to meeting with dissidents on the island to requesting freedom for jailed American subcontractor Alan Gross.

There were results from the 1998 visit by Pope John Paul II to Cuba, and many would like to see some this time around also: After John Paul’s visit, a new convent and seminary opened, the government permitted occasional Masses and addresses to be broadcast on state-controlled media — and Christmas, long a regular day of work, became a national holiday.

“There’s a long way to go, however, and I think Benedict will address that,’’ said Msgr. Franklyn M. Casale, the president of St. Thomas University in Miami Gardens. “The return of Catholic schools would be a great breakthrough.’’

Former President Fidel Castro received a Jesuit education, but after the 1959 revolution, religious schools across the island were closed. St. Thomas, which traces its roots to the Universidad de Santo Tomás de Villanueva, founded in 1946 by Augustinian friars, was one of them.

After the friars were expelled in 1961, they came to South Florida and founded Biscayne College, which later became St. Thomas.

More than 50 years after that, Casale took a group of 10 students and three faculty members to Cuba on a weekend pilgrimage and what he called a “learning experience’’ earlier this month.

Casale said he expects the 84-year-old pope to talk about religious freedom, education and human rights. “These are all very regular themes in his pontificate,’’ said Casale.

Human rights may be a regular theme, but an item high on many exiles’ wish list — a meeting with island dissidents — is more controversial. Dissident and human rights groups have sent letters and petitions to the pope asking for such a meeting.

In Miami, a group of young professionals has launched One Cuba, a Facebook campaign urging the pope to meet with human rights activists during his trip and asking people to sign their petition.

Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen also appealed to the pope “to show his support for the Cuban people by meeting with peaceful dissident groups, including those practicing their faith while bringing attention to human rights violations, the Ladies in White and Jorge García Pérez (Antúnez)’’ in a recent written statement.

The Ladies in White are relatives of political prisoners who dress in white during weekly marches. García, a human rights activist known as Antúnez, was jailed for 17 years. Pope John Paul II asked for his release during his 1998 trip, but he was held until 2007.

Former political prisoner Guillermo Fariñas, in a letter to Benedict, asked the pope to address themes such as freedom for all political prisoners, the end to violence against the opposition, free travel for all Cubans, and a dialogue between government authorities and the peaceful opposition. Fariñas suggested it would be better for Benedict to postpone his trip if he could not. But the occupation of a basilica that’s part of the Our Lady of Charity church in Havana last week by 13 dissidents seems to have opened a rift between the Catholic Church and the dissident movement.

“No one has the right to convert temples into political trenches,’’ said a statement signed by Orlando Márquez, spokesman for the archdiocese of Havana.

And after his attempts at persuasion didn’t work, Cardinal Jaime Ortega requested that police remove the dissidents from the church although, Márquez said, he requested that they be allowed to return to their homes and not be charged. However, some of the dissidents said they were still threatened with prosecution after the pope leaves.

That seemed to put even more distance between Ortega and the fractured dissident movement — even though it was his dialogue with President Raúl Castro that led to the release last year of 130 political prisoners, most of whom were required to go into exile in Spain.

“Generally speaking the Church has been careful not to bring the dissidents under its skirts,’’ said Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski. “I think the dissidents understand this has to be their own project.’’

He said he didn’t know if the pope would be meeting with dissidents and human right activists. But he noted that if Benedict were to telegraph such an intention, “he probably wouldn’t be able to find them” — a reference to a government policy of frequent, short-term detentions of dissidents in recent months.

As far as his own wishes for the pope’s trip, Wenski said, “I’ll allow myself to be pleasantly surprised.’’

But Andy Gomez, a University of Miami Cuba analyst who will be going on the archdiocese pilgrimage, is specific about what he would like to see the pope do: reach out to dissidents and invite the Ladies in White to one of his Masses, talk about human rights abuses — and specifically reach out to the Afro-Cuban community.

Many of the more recent dissidents are black, poor and less likely to have family members abroad who can send them remittances to help make ends mean during tough economic times, Gomez pointed out. And without strong messages from the pope, he said, “my concern is that people may be looking at the Church as betraying the Cuban people or not doing enough. You’ve got to build bridges to the Cuban people.’’

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