Berta Soler, leader of Cuba's Ladies in White human rights movement, has dismissed President Raul Castro’s assertion that he might become Catholic again as “a joke”.
Mr Castro made the comments last weekend after a 50-minute meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican. Last year Francis was instrumental in facilitating a rapprochement between Havana and Washington after more than half a century of deadlock.
Castro said he had read all Pope Francis’ speeches and declared himself “very impressed with the wisdom and modesty” of the Pope.
“If the Pope continues in this vein I will start to pray again and return to the Catholic Church – I’m not joking,” he said after the meeting with Francis.
Soler’s Ladies in White have been campaigning for the release of political prisoners and other causes for 12 years. She said of Castro that he was “mocking the Holy Father when he said that he might return to the bosom of the Church. He has never believed in Christ and he never will."
Speaking to Spain’s Onda Cero radio station, Soler also said she was disappointed that the Pope had failed to raise with Castro the situation of political prisoners in Cuba.
Asked about this in London on Tuesday, the papal nuncio Antonio Mennini said it was impossible to be sure that the matter was not raised in the meeting. He recalled that while, during his visit to the island in 1998, Pope John Paul II requested and secured the release of several hundred dissidents, but, the following year saw a new clampdown by Fidel Castro in which hundreds more were detained and more than 20 executed. The Government also introduced a new law against sedition in February 1999 with a maximum sentence of 20 years. “Sincerity,” Archbishop Mennini said on Tuesday, “is always an issue in diplomacy.”
Last month, Cuban priest Fr José Conrado Rodríguez said he feared there was a “major crisis of spirituality” on the island. “People still have a lot of fear and they hang on to material things, because people sell their souls to the devil when resources are scarce,” he told El Nuevo Herald newspaper. “There is the quest to own and not to share. And there is so much poverty.”
Fr Conrado has become well known in Cuba for his criticism of the Communist regime. In 2009 he told Raúl Castro that Cuba was in a “dead end street”, urging him to enact changes and reminding him of the “constant and unjustifiable violation of human rights”.
Following his meeting with the Pope last weekend Castro declared that the situation in Cuba was “improving”. “I am from the Cuban Communist party, that didn’t allow [religious] believers, but now we are allowing it, it’s an important step,” he said.
Later this year the Pope will visit Cuba for four days from 19 to 22 September, before he travels on to Washington D.C. for a six-day US visit. Mr Castro said he promised to go “to all [Francis’] Masses in Cuba, gladly”. For its part the Vatican said in a statement following the meeting that the mood had been “very friendly”.
Raul Castro made a point of expressing his gratitude for the part the Pope played in improving relations between Cuba and America. “I have come here to thank him for what he has done to solve the problems of the United States and Cuba,” said Castro.
Last year the Vatican hosted delegations from the two countries and the Pope wrote to both presidents appealing to them to resolve their differences. A senior US official told Reuters news agency at the time that “the support of Pope Francis and the support of the Vatican was important to us.”
François Hollande travelled to Cuba on Monday for talks with Mr Castro and his brother Fidel, becoming the first French President to visit the island since 1898. Mr Hollande made no mention of the EU freeze in political and cultural ties with Havana in response to the arrest of 77 dissidents in 2002.
He also bestowed France's most prestigious medal, the Légion d'honneur, on the island's most senior prelate, Cardinal-Archbishop Jaime Ortega of Havana, praising him as a “trusted messenger” of the Pope in helping bring about the normalisation of US-Cuban relations.
Photos: Cuban President Raul Castro smiles as he meets Pope Francis during private audience at Vatican, top, and Berta Soler, and Raul Castro after his meeting with Pope Francis. PA, CNS