By BosNewsLife Americas Service with reporting by BosNewsLife's Stefan J. Bos and reports from Cuba
HAVANA, CUBA (BosNewsLife)-- As Pope Benedict XVI was leaving Cuba, "hundreds of dissidents", including devoted Christians, were released after spending the week in prison or under house arrest to stop them from attending any religious activities surrounding his visit, rights activists confirmed Friday, March 30.
It came after Pope Benedict XVI demanded more freedom for the Catholic Church in Communist-run Cuba and preached against "fanaticism" in what was seen as an unusually political sermon before hundreds of thousands at Revolution Plaza, with President Raul Castro in the front row.
On his way to Mexico and later Cuba, he told reporters that Marxism "no longer responds to reality," but he wasn't able to meet those openly opposing that system.
Among dissidents detained was Caridad Caballero, a Catholic dissident from Holguin, who was captured along with another woman, Isabel Peña Torrez, on their way to Mass last Sunday morning.
In published remarks she said the arrest involved a mob of state security agents, male and female, who violently pushed her and the other woman against the car. "We were never told we were under arrest, but were threatened with violence if we did not cooperate."
The two women were taken to a local prison where officials allegedly attempted to strip search them. Caballero refused to allow them to remove her underwear but said another woman had her top violently torn off.
About 30 dissidents from Holguin were held in the same prison and eight additional activists had been transported from Santiago province, to the east of Holguin, where some of the main activities surrounding the pontiff's visit took place, said Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), an advocacy group closely following the case.
"The dissidents were detained separately in cells alongside prisoners accused of violent crimes. Lights were kept on round the clock," CSW added.
They were reportedly only allowed to keep the clothes they were wearing at the time of their arrest and were prevented from receiving Bibles.
Caballero said she and other prisoners spent the week praying and fasting, refusing all food and water.
“During the time we [Caballero and another Catholic prisoner, Marta Diaz Rondón] spent the whole time praying. We went on a complete fast – no food or water until we were released."
She added that she "tried to stay in silence as much as possible. We prayed and prayed so many prayers that God would open the doors and prayed that no one else would have to suffer like this just for speaking the truth. It was God who gave us strength and He even took away our hunger.”
Caballero (pictured) was released late Wednesday, the eve of Pope Benedict XVI’s departure.
She said she was left to find her own way home and added that another prisoner, Marta Diaz Rondón, had been dropped off by herself in an isolated location in the countryside, "miles (kilometers) from her home in Banes."
Caballero said she returned home to find that her son and husband had been kept under house arrest all week.
The dissident, who has been prevented from participating in any religious activities at her local church since the beginning of the year, wonders whether she will now be allowed to practice her faith "unmolested".
“My First Communion should be on April 8th. We will have to wait and see if the authorities will allow me to go to church and do this.”
Additionally, Cuba's Interior Ministry, in charge of the communist-ruled country's domestic security, blocked the mobile phones of hundreds of dissidents during Benedict XVI's three-day visit. Telephone numbers were reportedly diverted to a Havana number of the Interior Ministry.
There was also concern about the whereabouts of Andres Carrion Alvarez, a 38-year-old resident of the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba, who was reportedly still in custody Friday, March 30.
The protester shouted "Down with the Revolution! Down with the dictatorship!" near journalists at the pontiff's Mass at Santiago's crowded Revolution Plaza on Monday, March 26.
Video of the incident showed him being hit by an apparent first-aid worker wearing a white T-shirt with a large red cross, before they were separated. Security agents
quickly took him away.
The government has had no comment, but a spokesperson for Benedict reportedly said the pontiff was aware of the incident and concerned about the man's welfare.
"There was contact made to be informed about the person and his situation," spokesman Federico Lombardi told journalists before the pope's departure Wednesday.
"The interest was there and was manifested," The Associated Press news agency quoted him as saying.
During his visit, the pope indirectly criticized the island's leadership before a vast crowd of Cubans, both in the sprawling plaza and watching on television. He also urged an end to Cuba's isolation, a reference to the 50-year-old U.S. economic embargo and the inability of 11 American presidents and the Castro brothers to forge peace.
"Cuba and the world need change, but this will occur only if each one is in a position to seek the truth and chooses the way of love, sowing reconciliation and fraternity," Benedict said.
JOHN PAUL LEGACY
The remark built upon the famed call of his predecessor, John Paul II, who said in his 1998 visit that Cuba should "open itself up to the world, and may the world open itself up to Cuba."
Cuban leaders have so far responded diplomatically to the comments of Benedict XVI, who also met former leader Fidel Castro. However earlier officials made clear there were "no dissidents" and said activists held in detention centers were "mercenaries of the United States" who oppose the Revolution.
CSW’s Advocacy Director Andrew Johnston said his his group remains "deeply disappointed" that "Men and women who are members of the Catholic Church and derive deep strength and inspiration from their faith were arbitrarily deprived of the right to participate in what could be a once in a lifetime religious celebration."
Johnston explained that his group has again urged the Cuban government "to remove all restrictions on religious freedom and to allow its citizens to practice the faith of their choice without interference.”
Despite years of lobbying, the Catholic church has virtually no access to state-run radio or television, is not allowed to administer schools and has not been granted permission to build new places of worship.
The island of 11.2 million people has just 361 priests, according to official estimates. Before 1959 there were 700 priests for a population of 6 million.
Other groups, including evangelical churches, have also reported difficulties to gather and some pastors were detained or otherwise harassed in recent years, Christians said.
Yet, despite its limitations, analysts say the Catholic Church is now seen as the most influential independent institution in Cuba, partly because Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the archbishop of Havana, has negotiated with Cuban leader Raul Castro for the release of political prisoners.
He also gives Castro's government advice on economic policy and allowed church magazines to publish increasingly frank articles about the need for change.