February 22, 2008
Miami Herald- Anne-Marie Garcia
HAVANA -- The Vatican's No. 2 official said Thursday he hopes his visit to Cuba will give 'a new push' to relations between the communist government and the island's Roman Catholic Church, which is pushing to reopen religious schools and increase its presence in state media.
Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican's secretary of state, is commemorating the 10-year anniversary of the first papal visit to Cuba.
In an address to 15 Cuban bishops, he said current Pope Benedict XVI ``knows the situation of the Cuban church well, carries it in his heart and has it very present in his prayers.'
'I harbor the hope that this celebration of the anniversary of the visit by Pope John Paul II to this blessed land contributes to giving a new push to relations between the state and the Catholic Church of Cuba,' Bertone said.
The meeting was closed to international reporters, but the Vatican's press office released the text of his speech.
Bertone also delivered a message to the Cuban bishops from Benedict in which the pope said that in Cuba, ``at times, some Christian communities feel overwhelmed by difficulties, by the lack of resources, indifference and even distrust.'
That was part of the reason why 'the mission of the Catholic Church in Cuba favors the most needy with concrete works of service and attention to men and women of any condition who deserve to be supported not only in their material needs but also cared for with affection and compassion,' the message from Benedict said.
Bertone's visit began a day after 81-year-old Fidel Castro announced he is permanently stepping down as president, clearing the way for the first new Cuban head-of-state in 49 years. His brother Raúl Castro, 76, is expected to be chosen as the new president.
Bertone is to meet Monday and Tuesday with top officials including Raúl Castro, who has ruled provisionally for 19 months during his brother Fidel's illness.
Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque welcomed Bertone at the airport. The Communist Party daily Granma called the trip an ``expression of the fluid, cordial and respectful communication that exists between the island nation and the state of Vatican City.'
But church-state relations have been mixed at best. Cuba's single-party government never outlawed religion but expelled priests and closed religious schools upon Castro's takeover of Cuba in 1959.
Tensions eased in the early 1990s when the government removed references to atheism in the constitution and let believers of all faiths join the Communist Party. They warmed more with Pope John Paul's 1998 visit.
Since then, Catholic officials have repeatedly asked government officials to ease bans on religious schools and allow church leaders to play a more active role in prisons. The church also would like to air some religious services and events on government-controlled media.
Bertone said his visit, scheduled before Castro's retirement announcement, marks the highest-level visit to Cuba by a Vatican official under Benedict XVI.