Thursday, December 6, 2007

Police Confront Dissidents at Santiago Church

Posted on Thu, Dec. 06, 2007

Cuban police drag tear-gassed dissidents from church


In an incident that a Cuban Catholic official called ''the worst attack against the church in 45 years,'' witnesses said police and state security agents raided a church in the eastern city of Santiago on Tuesday, using tear gas and blows to drag 18 dissidents to jail.
''This is an example of the relationship between the church and the Cuban government?'' said Rev. José Conrado Rodríguez, parish priest at the St. Teresita Church. ``This was a wild terrorist party.''

Human-rights activists say the roundup at the church capped a weeks-old crackdown by state security agents against a rising movement of young dissidents demanding more freedom and independent universities.

The series of detentions of young people began last month when a handful protested recent municipal elections, and expanded days later when dozens were arrested for wearing white rubber wristbands that say CAMBIO -- change.

Tuesday's incident underscored the attention the Cuban government is paying to the growing youth dissidence movement, and signals trouble ahead for young people who wish to participate, dissidents in Cuba said.

The latest arrests occurred when a group of dissidents dressed in black walked from Santiago's cathedral to St. Teresita some 20 blocks away in support of other youths arrested last week in Havana. Once at the church, they planned a prayer service for their jailed friends.

Their protest began with a fast at the home of Yaquelín Hechavarria, whose husband, Gerardo Sánchez, was arrested Nov. 29 during a sit-in in Havana, days after presenting the international media there with a petition reportedly signed by 5,000 students demanding independent universities.

'Everybody wore something black, and some people were wearing stickers on their shirts that said, `I don't cooperate with the dictatorship' and slogans like that,'' Hechavarria said by telephone from Santiago.

''When we got to the church, about 25 patrol cars surrounded us on every side. It was huge. I have never seen anything like it,'' she added. ``Everyone rushed in the church, but they came in after us with tear gas. They were pushing and shoving and hitting people and saying any number of terrible things to the priest.''


While the witnesses said the roundup targeted the dissidents, they questioned why authorities waited until the marchers arrived at the church to arrest them.

''Don't you think that's kind of strange?'' Conrado asked by phone from Santiago.

''I was speechless. Who has ever seen such a thing in a church? There is no justification for this, and I cannot accept it,'' said Conrado, long known as a critic of the Cuban government.

He said Santiago Archbishop Dionisio García later that day held Mass at St. Teresita and branded the incident as ''the worst attack on the church in 45 years.'' Conrado said his bishop was demanding answers from state authorities.

García later told The Associated Press that police damaged the church but did not enter the sanctuary itself, instead staying on the grounds. ''It is lamentable that these events happened; they should not have occurred,'' he was quoted as saying.

Officials at church headquarters in Havana declined to comment. The Cuban Catholic Bishops Conference called it an unprecedented event, the AFP news agency reported.

''I am 64 years old and since I've had use of my senses, I cannot recall a case like this,'' said Elizardo Sánchez, a dissident leader in Havana. ``Security had hours to plan it, so it makes you think it was premeditated. Nobody knows if they had a green light from the central government. In Cuba, there are no coincidences.'''


Witnesses said 18 people were arrested, and one woman was released after eight hours, because she was lactating.

''They said we were CIA and mercenaries,'' said Tatiana López Blanco, the Cuban Youth For Democracy Movement member who was released at 2 a.m. ``I never thought I would see such a thing in a house of God.''

The Catholic church has had a complex relationship with the Cuban government, which initially banned practicing Catholics from joining the Communist Party and nationalized parochial schools. It was not until the 1990s that priests such as Conrado began speaking out publicly.

Sánchez said the spike in detentions appears to be aimed at keeping dissidents from celebrating International Human Rights Day, which is Monday. The government, he said, has noticed the increasing numbers of young people joining opposition groups.


More than 100 young adults have been arrested in the past month alone, Sánchez said.

Another handful of students was expelled from two Santiago universities this fall after the group protested the lack of faculty response to a student's rape, activists said.

''You didn't see that even three years ago,'' Sánchez said. ``This is a very new phenomenon. This year the participation of young people has been much more marked than ever before.''


© 2007 Miami Herald Media Company. All Rights Reserved., Cuba's defense minister and longtime
number two.

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