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Catholic Church Condemns Cuba Shootdown, Calls for Reconciliation

March 18, 1996

MEXICO CITY (AP) _ Cuba’s Roman Catholic bishops over the weekend condemned the shootdown of two American civilian planes and called on both the U.S. and Cuba to refrain from further violence.

It also exhorted Cuban exile groups to practice moderation and dialogue rather than confrontation.

News dispatches from Havana, monitored in Mexico City, said the March 12 document signed by the Conference of Roman Catholic Bishops of Cuba was read in churches throughout the island nation on Saturday.

``Although the repeated incursions of airspace were imprudent ... the response was excessive and violent,″ the document said.

Two of three planes carrying Cuban exiles from Miami were shot down by Cuban air force aircraft over the Florida Straits. Four members of the exile group Brothers to the Rescue were killed.

It was an extraordinary document to be issued in Cuba, where the church historically has stayed out of politics and refrains from criticizing President Fidel Castro’s Communist government.

The Catholic Church has a limited following in Cuba. Experts estimate that more Cubans practice African-influenced religions like Santeria than Catholicism.

The Cuban government agency Prensa Latina late Saturday quoted Foreign Minister Roberto Robaina as saying the government would study the document to determine ``if it has some connection with the political aggression of North American imperialism.″

The Mexican government news agency Notimex said the document also criticized the Cuban government’s crackdown on members of Concilio Cubano, a coalition of opposition groups that had sought to hold a convention in Havana on Feb. 24, the same day as the shootdown.

Beginning on Feb. 15, government security agents began rounding up and questioning Concilio members. The government has charged that Concilio was created and is supported by the U.S. government and anti-Castro Cuban exiles.

The bishops said their opposition to the crackdown ``does not emanate from any political consideration aside from our worries as pastors of the church proposing harmony and dialogue as the road to reconciliation.″

They called on the Cuban and U.S. governments to seek ``alternatives to rigidity and violence″ in the wake of recent events, which they said ``had allowed the most intransigent postures to triumph.″

The prelates also blasted tougher U.S. sanctions against Cuba, signed into law last week by President Clinton, saying they will only harm the Cuban people.

The Helms-Burton Act gives Cuban exiles the right to sue over property they lost during Castro’s Communist rule. Also, foreign investors who deal in confiscated property are barred entry into the United States.

The document released on Saturday emerged out of a bishops’ conference held in the eastern community of El Cobre, home to a sanctuary dedicated to the Virgin of Charity, Cuba’s patron saint.

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