FaithWorld

Vatican official’s Cuba visit spurs new hopes for political prisoners

mambertiA five-day visit to Cuba by Vatican Foreign Minister Archbishop Dominque Mamberti, which ended on Sunday, has raised hopes that more political prisoners will be released and the Catholic Church’s recent prominence will continue, dissident and church leaders say.

“Really, we are very optimistic about the visit because there could be more releases of our family members.  This visit has been very positive,” said Berta Soler, a leader in the dissident group “Ladies in White,” whose husbands and sons are political prisoners. (Photo: Archbishop Mamberti visits a Havana school with a portrait of late rebel leader Ernesto “Che” Guevara on the wall, June 18, 2010/Enrique De La Os)

In joint appearances, Cuban officials and Mamberti repeatedly used words like “cordial,” “respectful” and “on the rise” to describe Cuban-Vatican relations, which have improved in the past decade after years of discord following Cuba’s 1959 revolution (here in English and in Spanish).

“The visit of Mamberti showed the favorable level and development of relations between the State and the Catholic church in Cuba,” the Communist Party newspaper Granma said on Monday. Mamberti’s trip was preceded by the release of one of Cuba’s estimated 190 political prisoners, and the transfer of 12 others to jails closer to their homes.

Read the fully story by Nelson Acosta here.

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Vatican official visits Cuba amid local Catholic Church calls for change

cuban prisonerVatican Foreign Minister Archbishop Dominque Mamberti visits Cuba this week at a time when the Catholic Church is flexing its political muscle and calling for change on the communist-led island.  His five-day visit, starting on Tuesday, follows the release of one of Cuba’s estimated 190 political prisoners and the transfer of 12 others to jails closer to their homes in moves requested by church leaders.

The concessions by the Cuban government have raised hopes that more prisoners will be freed in a gesture to Mamberti, who is the third Vatican official to come to Cuba since Raul Castro succeeded older brother Fidel Castro as president in 2008. (Photo: Released prisoner Ariel Sigler Amaya carried out of an ambulance at his residence east of Havana on June 12, 2010/Enrique De La Osa)

The church has moved cautiously over the years, but in recent months Cuban church leader Cardinal Jaime Ortega has become more outspoken.  In a unusually blunt interview with church publication Palabra Nueva (PDF here in Spanish) in April, Ortega said Cubans were fed up with the country’s ongoing economic difficulties and called for the government to “make the necessary changes quickly.”

With new Catholic leader in Hanoi, a breakthrough in sight?

Protesters wave banners in support of Archbishop Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet of Hanoi outside the city's cathedral, 7 May 2010/Nguyen Huy Kham

Hanoi Catholics held a ceremony last Friday to welcome the man who is expected to become their new archbishop, but for many on hand – priests and faithful alike – it was a moment of sadness. There were no flowers at the altar of Hanoi’s 124-year-old cathedral welcoming Peter Nguyen Van Nhon, 72, to the role of coadjutor bishop. Outside on the steps, several dozen people brandished banners in protest of what his papal appointment represented.

It’s not that they had anything personal against Nhon, who is head of Vietnam’s bishops conference and hails from the southern city of Dalat. But Nhon happens to be taking over for Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet, 57, an archbishop who stood up to local Communist authorities by backing church groups embroiled in land disputes with the government in recent years.

Cuban pilgrimage mixes Santeria with Catholic faith

santeria1

Worshipper pushes rock to shrine of Saint Lazarus, 17 Dec 2009/Desmond Boylan

Some dressed in sackcloth, a few crawling on their hands and knees, thousands of Cubans paid homage  to a Catholic saint who doubles as a powerful deity in the Afro-Cuban Santeria faith. The Saint Lazarus pilgrimage on Thursday is one of the most important religious events on the communist-run island, melding Afro-Cuban faiths with Roman Catholic beliefs that were marginalized for decades after the 1959 revolution.

Devotees of Saint Lazarus, who traditionally wear sackcloth and purple clothing as symbols of repentance, flock to the shrine at a church near the village of El Rincon in the countryside just outside Havana.  Saint Lazarus is associated with helping the sick, and many of the pilgrims go to ask the saint to cure relatives’ ailments. Others make long, hard journeys barefoot or haul themselves along the ground on their hands and knees.

Experts explain this fusion of Santeria and Christian figures by saying that African slaves in Cuba originally pretended to worship the Catholic saints of their Spanish masters while secretly paying homage to their own deities.

Lottery system to chose next Serbian Orthodox patriarch

pavel-funeral (Photo: Prelates pay respects to Patriarch Pavel, 15 Nov 2009/Ivan Milutinovic)

If U.S. voters elected their president in the same way the Serbian Orthodox Church chooses it patriarch, they could have seen Ralph Nader, Ross Perot or other third place finishers taking up residence in the White House. That’s because the Church, in a move originally aimed at thwarting Communist authorities, uses a system that incorporates a lottery within the election by church elders to choose a leader.

The Holy Synod of Bishops, the Church’s top executive body, will use that system within the next three months to elect a successor to Patriarch Pavle, who died on Sunday. Pavle headed the Serbian Orthodox Church during the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s as Serbs warred with neighbours of other faiths.

pavlePavle, 95, died at Belgrade’s Military Hospital where he had been treated since 2007 for various ailments. As his health deteriorated, although nominally still head of the church until death, Pavle had given up its day-to-day running in 2008 to Bishop Amfilohije, who is seen as a Serb nationalist on issues such as Kosovo.

How East Germany’s communists misunderstood its Protestants

schroederAnniversaries are a time to look back at how the world was before the historic event being commemorated. During a recent trip to Berlin in advance of today’s 20th anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s fall, I asked the former East German theologian and politician Richard Schröder for his recollections of the life as a Protestant pastor before the country fell apart. He zeroed in on a fascinating aspect of the Communists’ anti-religion policy I’d never heard about before. (Photo: Richard Schröder, 21 Oct 2009/Tom Heneghan)

“The Communists who took over in 1945 were trained in Russia,” he told me at his home in a southern suburb of Berlin. “Their model was the Russian Orthodox Church, which focuses heavily on the liturgy. By contrast, Protestant churches have always been a wide field that included Bible study and other discussion groups. All the charity work of the Protestant churches, like their hospitals, were started by what you might call grass roots movements of congregation members. They were not started by the churches themselves. But the Communists always tried to handle us as if we were Russian Orthodox.”

One way to do this was to demand the churches register in advance any meeting except their Sunday church services and the internal sessions of the church leadership. Officials were especially suspicious of the churches’ youth activities, such as camping trips that included Bible study sessions. The churches refused to agree because this would have been a way to block such activities without banning them outright — all they would have to do was fail to issue permission for the meeting. “The state made a second effort to impose this registration, but the churches decided to pay all the fines and not register the meetings. They got away with it. When the officials noticed the churches always paid the 500 mark fine but kept on holding their meetings, they stopped imposing the fine. It took a long time for the Communists to understand that the Protestant churches are a different version of Christianity than the strongly liturgical Orthodox Church.”

Some east German Protestants feel overlooked as Wall recalled

thomaskircheAs Germany celebrates the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, some Protestants feel the crucial role their church played in shepharding the democracy movement to success is quietly being overlooked. This seems strange to someone like myself who reported on those events back then. Any reporter in Berlin in the tense weeks before Nov. 9, 1989 knew the Protestant (mostly Lutheran) churches sheltered dissidents and was working for reform. But the idea that this was fading from public view came up during my recent visit to Leipzig when, at an organ recital in Johann Sebastian Bach‘s St. Thomas Church (Thomaskirche), the pastor mentioned the point in a sermon. (Photo: St. Thomas Church in Leipzig with Bach statue, 17 Oct 2009/Tom Heneghan)

When I later went up to Berlin, I ran the idea past a leading east German Protestant theologian and a pastor and two parish council members from the Gethsemane Church (Gethsemanekirche). That church in eastern Berlin was one of the most active centres of protest in the tense months before demonstrators forced open the Wall on Nov. 9, 1989. They all agreed.

The many anniversary celebrations, documentaries and discussions now underway across Germany seem to focus mostly on how fearless street protesters and astute politicians pulled off the “peaceful revolution” that ended communism. Films and photos of dissidents packed into the Gethsemane Church in East Berlin or Leipzig’s St. Nicholas Church (Nikolaikirche), the leading houses of worship that sheltered them until the Wall opened , are among the trademark images.  But those crowded “peace prayer” evenings were only the tip of the iceberg of behind-the-scenes work by pastors and lay people who considered it their Christian duty to promote civil rights and human dignity in a rigid communist society.

Vietnam’s not-so-simple eviction of Buddhist monks and nuns

thichA government-backed mob in Vietnam about a week ago booted nearly 400 Buddhist monks and nuns out of a monastery in the centre of the country, bringing an apparent end to an ugly standoff with complicated origins. The incident has raised questions about the ruling Communist Party’s commitment to progress on religious freedom, but the Bat Nha Monastery narrative is much more complex than simply an “authoritarian government cracks down on the faithful” story. (Photo: Thich Nhat Hanh at Non Nuoc pagoda north of Hanoi, 20 April 2007/Nguyen Huy Kham)

Some of the basic facts seem pretty straightforward. For nearly three years, the monks and nuns had lived at Bat Nha monastery in Lam Dong province, largely with the blessing of the local authorities via cooperation with local Buddhists, after their leader, the Vietnamese-born, French-based Buddhist zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, visited Vietnam in 2005 for the first time in 39 years. Last year, the local authorities started to put pressure on the followers of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village school of Buddhism. In late June of this year, electricity, water and phone services to the monastery were cut and a mob attacked the group to try to evict them, but they refused to leave. In July, a smaller mob attempted another attack. The government set Sept. 2 as a deadline for them to leave, but that date came and went. monksThen, on Sunday, Sept 27, the group’s overseas adherents reported that “an unidentified mob” of about 150 people, believed to include plain clothes policemen, violently evicted the 379 resident monastic followers of Thich Nhat Hanh. (Photo: Monks pray at Dong Pagoda northeast of Hanoi, 26 Nov 2008/Nguyen Huy Kham)

The central government’s line has been that local Buddhists wanted Thich Nhat Hanh’s followers out of their monastery and the government had nothing to do with it. Asked about the incident, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Nguyen Phuong Nga said in a statement it was “an internal issue between two groups of people following Buddhism at Bat Nha monastery. The dispute was non-violent, nobody was injured or detained.”

Cuba authorises first prison religious services in 50 years

cuba-prisonThe Cuban government has given permission for religious services to be held in the island’s prisons for the first time in 50 years, a church official has said.

The services will be allowed in all prisons where the inmates request them, said Marcial Miguel Hernandez, president of the Cuban Council of Churches. (Photo: Combinado del Este men’s prison outside Havana, 31 March 2004/Claudia Daut)

“For us, it’s an expression and act of good faith by the Cuban authorities,” he told Reuters.

Is a papal visit to Vietnam on the horizon?

Could the Pope make a historic visit to commmunist Vietnam later this year?  A papal envoy hinted at this on Thursday, as Vietnam and the Vatican are seriously discussing establishing diplomatic ties. “This is my wish,” Vatican Undersecretary of State Monsignor Pietro Parolin told reporters when asked if he thought the Pope could visit the Southeast Asian country this year. He added that the question had not been discussed in meetings with the Foreign Ministry and government’s religious affairs committee. (Photo: Priest outside a Hanoi court trying Catholics for illegal protests, 8 Dec 2008/stringer)

The papal envoy has been attending the first meeting of a joint working group on improving ties this week in Hanoi. He said the talks had made progress, but establishing ties was a process that will take time.

Roman Catholicism in Vietnam dates back centuries, even before French colonial rule. Now some 7 percent of mostly-Buddhist Vietnam’s population of 86 million are Catholic, making it one of the biggest Catholic communities in Asia.