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Pope Calls For Prisoners’ Release

January 25, 1998

HAVANA (AP) _ Pope John Paul II, in the bluntest political messages yet of his historic Cuban visit, called Saturday for the release of ``prisoners of conscience″ on this communist island and respect for three freedoms _ of expression, initiative and association.

The pope got some help from a bold Cuban bishop in the eastern city of Santiago, where the pontiff spoke at a morning open-air Mass.

Addressing tens of thousands of faithful, Santiago’s Archbishop Pedro Meurice Estiu said too many Cubans ``have confused patriotism with a party,″ that is, the communists.

Party members were there to hear the churchmen’s reproachful words. In the front ``pew″ of chairs sat a group of officials led by President Fidel Castro’s powerful brother Raul, Cuba’s defense minister.

But the Castro government had no immediate official response to their statements.

The pontiff’s appeal on behalf of political prisoners came later Saturday, during a dramatic evening pilgrimage to a hallowed Cuban shrine for the sick _ the leprosarium and religious center of St. Lazarus, outside Havana, where he spoke to health workers, lepers and AIDS patients.

``Suffering is not only physical,″ said the 77-year-old pontiff, himself impaired by a variety of ailments and injuries.

``There is also suffering of the soul, such as we see in those who are isolated, persecuted, imprisoned for various offenses or for reasons of conscience, for ideas which though dissident are nonetheless peaceful.″

He said he encouraged efforts to return these ``prisoners of conscience″ to society.

It would be ``a gesture which honors the authority promoting it,″ John Paul said.

Human rights groups say Cuba holds at least 500 political prisoners. On Thursday, the second day of the pope’s five-day visit, Vatican officials asked for clemency on behalf of several hundred Cuban prisoners, both political detainees and common criminals.

Cuban officials said they would consider that request. The Vatican did not release a list of names or specify the number of prisoners that should be released.

The pope’s comments gave hope to Magali de Armas, wife of Vladimiro Roca, the detained head of the Cuban Social Democratic Party.

``We have a lot of faith that the Holy Father’s request will be welcomed by Castro. We are very anxious for his response,″ she said.

Roca was arrested in July on charges of distributing enemy propaganda after publishing a manifesto titled, ``The fatherland is for everyone,″ in which he suggested changes in government.

After learning of the pope’s appeal, an emotional Gisela Delgado, wife of another prisoner, said, ``I can’t express my feelings.″ Her husband, Hector Palacios, head of the group Democratic Solidarity, has been imprisoned since January 1997.

The pope also referred to the U.S. economic embargo that has in part caused shortages of medicines in Cuba.

``I am aware of the great efforts being made in Cuba in the field of health care, despite the economic constraints which the country is enduring,″ he said.

The Saturday morning Mass was broadcast live on national television, bringing into homes across Cuba unusually candid words about the 39-year-old revolution.

In one Havana hotel, as the pope spoke in Santiago, maids leaned on their brooms and government officials fell silent to listen to the message from the man millions here consider the global spokesman for their Christian tradition.

Before the visit, Castro had declared the pope would be free to say whatever he wanted in Cuba. The longtime Cuban leader clearly was willing to risk inspiring some new open dissent in this country, in exchange for burnishing the image of an increasingly tolerant Cuba.

The pontiff gets one more chance to put his mark _ with his closely attended words _ on Cuba’s religious and possibly political future, when he officiates Sunday at a climactic final Mass in Havana’s Plaza of the Revolution, expected to be attended by hundreds of thousands.

In the steamy heat of Santiago, Cuba’s second city, the pope sat on a high altar in Antonio Maceo Plaza, beneath a blue-and-white canopy, against the green backdrop of the Sierra Maestra mountains.

His remarks on freedom and human rights drew repeated applause from the sweltering throng.

``The good of a nation must be promoted and achieved by its citizens themselves through peaceful and gradual means,″ he declared.

``In this way each person, enjoying freedom of expression, being free to undertake initiatives and make proposals within civil society, and enjoying appropriate freedom of association, will be able to cooperate effectively in the pursuit of the common good.″

Cuba’s communist government tightly controls major media, sharply limits business and other private initiatives and suppresses efforts to form opposition groups.

The pontiff then added an appeal for a fourth freedom as well: greater freedom for the Catholic church, which has operated under restrictions for years, to proselytize among Cuba’s people.

Before the pope spoke, Archbishop Meurice welcomed him with pointed words about Cuba’s communist system.

``Our people are respectful of authority, and want order, but they need to learn to demystify false messiahs,″ Meurice said.

``A growing number of Cubans have confused patriotism with a party, the nation with a historic process we have lived through in the past decades, and culture with an ideology.″

Although the government had no official reaction, one communist official, speaking privately, said of the bishop’s remarks, ``That’s his opinion. It’s not mine.″

Thousands attending the Mass drifted away after the addresses. But it was not clear how many left because of the humid, 84-degree heat, or out of disagreement with what they heard or because the highlight of the event _ the ``crowning″ of a statue of Cuba’s patron saint, the Virgin of Charity _ had been completed.

The pope’s reception in Santiago was exuberant, as it has been throughout his trip.

``Juan Pablo, hermano!″ the crowd chanted at one point. ``Ya tu eres Cubano!″ _ ``John Paul, brother! Now you’re a Cuban!″

The limping, exhausted pope clearly has been buoyed by the Cuban spirit. At one point in Santiago, referring to the weather, he quipped, ``Thanks for the warmth. And thanks for the human warmth.″

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