Church of Charity of Cobre in Central Havana
Church of Charity of Cobre in Central Havana Flickr/Creative Common

A group of thirteen Catholic dissidents have refused to vacate a church in Havana, Cuba, ahead of Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the Communist nation later in the month.

The Associated Press reported that earlier the group, which has been holed up in the Church of Charity of Cobre in Central Havana for two days, had requested an audience with the Pope, but now they have dropped that demand.

However, they are determined to continue with the occupation as a form of protest against the Cuban government.

Fred Calderon, a spokesman for the dissidents, told AP by phone that they now want Benedict to mediate with the Havana government with respect to their grievances.

We want him to intercede on our behalf ... and be a mediator for our demands, Calderon told AP.

Among other things, Calderon said his group wants the pontiff to get the authorities to free political prisoners, end the harassment and intimidation of dissenters, open up information channels, increase the right to private property, lift travel bans and establish a new transitional government.

The Cuban government has not commented on the protest, but Cuban church officials have condemned the use of a place of worship as illegitimate and disrespectful.

Nobody has the right to turn temples into political trenches, church spokesman Orlando Marquez said in a statement.Nobody has the right to disturb the celebratory spirit of faithful Cubans and many other citizens who look with jubilation and hope toward the visit of the Holy Father, Benedict XVI, to Cuba.

Calderon countered: We will not leave. We do not see the church as a trench but as a refuge.

Last year, the government of Raul Castro, brother of Fidel, made some dramatic steps to alter Cuba’s economy by slashing or eliminating many state subsidies, laying off tens of thousands of state workers, and encouraging the formation of small businesses.

Apparently, these concessions were not sufficient for the dissidents in the church.

Moreover, the Cuban government claims it doesn’t hold any political prisoners, having freed hundreds in recent years (often through mediation with church figures).

William Cepera, a Cuban dissident, told BBC: We would like to talk to the Pope and tell him that the government of Fidel and Raul (Castro) has released only some prisoners, but other political prisoners remain.”

Benedict, who is scheduled to visit Cubs on Match 26-28, is not scheduled to meet with any dissidents. The pope also said he wants to see Catholicism flourish in the Communist island nation.

The archbishop of Havana, Jaime Ortega, said in a national TV address on Tuesday: The pope is committed to reviving the faith in countries that were Christianized before who need a new evangelization… The pope feels that he comes to confirm us in this faith. He comes to reaffirm these Christian values.”