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A HISTORIC PILGRIMAGE

Free All Political Prisoners, Pope Urges Castro

January 25, 1998|MARK FINEMAN and RICHARD BOUDREAUX | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

HAVANA — In a challenge to Fidel Castro's government, Pope John Paul II called on his host Saturday to release all "prisoners of conscience" from Cuba's jails and open its tightly controlled Communist system to freedom of expression and assembly.

The pontiff's prisoner appeal, made during an emotional evening visit to a leper sanctuary in suburban Havana, was similar to requests he has made on other trips abroad. But it came after he had spoken out in the eastern city of Santiago for more "human rights and social justice" on the island--and after that city's archbishop had sharply criticized the government for Cuba's lack of basic freedoms.

In a nationwide broadcast of a papal Mass attended by Gen. Raul Castro, the Cuban president's younger brother and second in command, Santiago Archbishop Pedro Meurice Estiu delivered the first opposition speech ever on Cuban state television.

Welcoming the pope to the nation's second-largest city and its official "Cradle of Liberty," the archbishop declared from the podium: "I present to you a growing number of Cubans who have confused fatherland with party, nationhood with the historical process of the last decades, and a culture with an ideology.

"Ours is a people that respects authority and likes order, but needs to learn to demythify false messianisms."

Later, at the leper sanctuary, the pope lamented what he called "the suffering of the soul" of "those who are isolated, persecuted, imprisoned for various offenses or for reasons of conscience--for ideas which, though dissident, are nonetheless peaceful."

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At the ceremony, titled "The World of Pain," John Paul added: "These prisoners suffer an isolation and a penalty for something for which their own conscience does not condemn them.

"I encourage efforts to reinsert prisoners into society. This is a gesture of high humanity and a seed of reconciliation, a gesture which honors the authority promoting it and strengthens social harmony in the country."

Unlike the Mass in Santiago, the pope's appeal was not televised in Cuba. The government denies that it holds political prisoners; all those in its jails have broken Cuban laws, officials say.

But a senior Cuban official said Friday that releasing prisoners as a humanitarian gesture to the pope "would not be impossible." Castro's government has released prisoners to visiting dignitaries several times in the past; in each case, the prisoners accompanied the visitors when they left Havana.

On Thursday, Vatican officials said they gave to Carlos Lage, one of Cuba's six vice presidents, the names of "several hundred" prisoners requesting clemency. Amnesty International says it has identified 34 political prisoners in Cuban jails.

The best-known inmates are the four founding members of the self-styled Internal Dissent Working Group, who were arrested July 15 after releasing to foreign media an eight-page document that responded critically to the Communist Party's draft proposals for its Fifth Congress last year.

The pope's broader call for "human rights and social justice" in Cuba was delivered in Spanish at the open-air Mass in Santiago, where he also crowned Cuba's patron saint, the Virgin of Charity.

"The good of a nation must be promoted and achieved by its citizens themselves through peaceful and gradual means," the pontiff told the midday crowd of more than 50,000, who responded to his address with frequent and spontaneous applause.

"In this way, each person, enjoying freedom of expression, being free to undertake initiatives and make proposals within society, and enjoying appropriate freedom of association, will be able to cooperate effectively in the pursuit of the common good."

At the leper sanctuary, the pope tempered his strong remarks on prisoners by praising "the great efforts being made in Cuba in the field of health care, despite the economic constraints which the country is enduring"--a clear reference to the punishing 35-year U.S. trade embargo, which the pope views as "deplorable."

The visit offered the most poignant moment so far in the pope's five-day pilgrimage, which ends today. His audience in a Catholic church at the sanctuary included 90 lepers, 10 nuns who care for them, 10 AIDS patients from another hospital, an orchestra made up of psychiatric patients and a choir of children who wept as they sang.

An 8-year-old blind girl serenaded the stooped, white-robed pontiff as he walked through the church with the aid of a cane, touching the hands and faces of lepers in wheelchairs. He urged them to ponder their suffering and that of the nation and turn to Christ.

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As the pope left the church, the children sang a hymn that bordered on subversion: "We pray to you, Lord, against injustice; we pray to you, Lord, against oppression. Pardon the man who subjects other men to power exercised without reason."

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