February 21, 2008 / 7:53 PM / 11 years ago

Pope says Catholics still face distrust in Cuba

HAVANA (Reuters) - Ten years after Pope John Paul’s historic trip to Cuba, his successor Pope Benedict said Roman Catholics on the communist-run island still face difficulties and distrust.

Pope Benedict XVI delivers his blessing during his weekly general audience in Paul VI hall at the Vatican February 20, 2008. REUTERS/Dario Pignatelli

“At times, some Christian communities feel overwhelmed by the difficulties, by the lack of resources, the indifference and even distrust, that can be discouraging,” he said on Thursday in a message to Cuba’s Catholic bishops.

The message was delivered by the Vatican secretary of state Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone who arrived here on Wednesday on a visit to commemorate the 1998 papal trip.

Bertone arrived in Havana one day after Cuban leader Fidel Castro announced he was stepping down after 49 years in power. His brother Raul Castro is expected to be named Cuba’s new head of state on Sunday.

The Vatican hopes Bertone’s visit will bring further improvement in the once strained relations with the government so that the Catholic Church can operate more freely in Cuba.

Bertone called for “respect and mutual understanding” so that the Church has the freedom to carry out its pastoral mission.

After Castro came to power in 1959, priests were expelled and Catholics faced decades of official atheism. They were greatly cheered by the visit of John Paul II, who met Castro and urged Cuba to allow more political freedom.

The Catholic Church is the only major institution in Cuba that is not controlled by the state and is expected to play an important social role in any post-Castro transition.

But it has not been allowed to build new churches, play a role in education or gain access to radio broadcasting.

Catholics say they have gained little ground since the papal visit a decade ago.

Carmen Vallejo, a fervent Catholic, said there is religious freedom in Cuba and processions are allowed on the streets but the growth of the Church has been blocked.

Vallejo, who works with children with terminal cancer, said she had been barred from entering hospitals to provide them with relief through prayer.

“We are not in the catacombs, but almost,” she said.

Additional reporting by Phil Stewart in Rome

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