The Washington Times
Wednesday, July 11, 2007

HAVANA — Top leaders of the Roman Catholic Church in Latin America gathered for the first time in Cuba yesterday, discussing the future of their faith in a globalized world against the backdrop of a closed communist society.

The Latin American Bishops’ Conference planned to elect a new president and meet with Cuban officials, although there were no specific plans to see Fidel Castro.

The 80-year-old leader has not been seen in public since emergency intestinal surgery almost a year ago forced him to cede power to a provisional government headed by his younger brother.

At a press conference, Chilean Cardinal Francisco Javier Errazuriz, the outgoing conference president, ducked questions about how he would characterize the relationship between Havana and its Catholic Church. He said only that relationships between different governments and churches around the world occasionally are strained and that “we are immensely pleased when relations are good.”

Although most Cubans are nominally Roman Catholic, the country was officially atheist for years, until relations between the Catholic Church and the Cuban government began to warm in the early 1990s.

Monsignor Carlos Aguiar, the conference’s first vice president, said leaders are grappling with “where the church needs to focus its energies to realize its mission.”

“Globalization, not only economic but cultural, will redefine the church’s mission,” said Bishop Aguiar, from Texcoco, Mexico.

The government controls nearly all aspects of Cuba’s economy and celebrates its opposition to globalization and to the cultural influence of the United States. All radio and television stations are state-run and access to the Internet is restricted.

The bishops decried abortion generally but refused to speak specifically about it in Cuba, where the practice is free and legal and rates are high.

Many governments and human rights organizations around the world accuse Cuba of jailing government critics and limiting speech and press freedoms. Officials reject those charges, saying their communist system respects human rights more than most other nations by offering a social safety net that includes free health care.

Asked about human rights, Bishop Andres Stanovnik, secretary-general of the conference, said officials “do not have a special or specific strategy for Cuba.”

“It’s the same strategy for all countries where we have a presence, to defend human rights, the right to liberty, the right to truth, the right to life,” said Bishop Stanovnik, from Reconquista, Argentina.

Almost 70 cardinals, bishops and religious leaders from across Latin America and the Caribbean — as well as special invitees from the United States — will participate in the four days of closed meetings.

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