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Cuba dissidents occupy church in the name of freedom ahead of Pope's visit

Desmond Boylan / Reuters

People walk near the Church of Our Virgin of Charity in Havana, which has been taken over by dissidents, Wednesday.

HAVANA, Cuba -- Cuban dissidents have occupied a Roman Catholic church in Havana in what a Church spokesman said was part of a broader orchestrated action to get Pope Benedict to press for change when he visits later this month.

Thirteen men and women who said they were members of political parties went into the Church of Our Virgin of Charity in central Havana on Tuesday and refused entreaties from Church officials to leave, according a statement from the archbishop's office in Havana.

It said similar incidents had happened in other churches in the country on Tuesday, but that elsewhere the dissidents had since "abandoned the temples."

Vladimir Calderon Frias, 47, told Reuters through a locked gate at the Havana church that he was executive director of the National Republican Party.

Only church can end 'suffering'
He said he and his colleagues were demanding freedom for political prisoners, freedom of expression, freedom of movement and better salaries, among other things.

The Catholic Church, he said, was the only institution that "can mediate for the end of the suffering of the Cuban people."

"We're doing it prior to the coming of the pope because we don't want any other thing except that the Vatican hears it," Calderon added.

Cuba's Ladies in White call dissident death 'murder'

The Church statement said that the occupation “has to do with a strategy prepared and coordinated by groups in various regions of the country.”

The statement added that its officials had been in constant contact with the government throughout the incident and that authorities assured them no action would be taken against the dissidents.

The Church called the occupation "an illegitimate and irresponsible act."

"Nobody has the right to convert the churches into political trenches," the statement said.

As pope visit nears, spotlight on Cuba's cardinal

Human rights activist Elizardo Sanchez said a group of 25 in eastern Holguin province was ejected from a church by the local archbishop and that in nearby Las Tunas dissidents were detained before they could occupy their target church.

The German-born pontiff will come to Cuba March 26-28 after a three-day visit to Mexico.

The Church, led in Cuba by Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the archbishop of Havana, has in the past two years helped negotiate the release of political prisoners, stepped in to ease government harassment of the dissident group Ladies in White and pushed President Raul Castro to move ahead with reforms liberalizing Cuba's Soviet-style economy.

'We love Fidel'
The dissidents' presence attracted loud disagreement from some passers-by who said they supported the government.

"We love Fidel (Castro), we love Raul (Castro), we love our government," said retiree Heriberto Serrano, 65.

"These people are confused, these people are people of low cultural level, because he who has no culture is the only one that can go against the country and the revolution," he said.

Last month, a crowd of government supporters surrounded the home of a leading Cuban dissident where opposition activists were quietly paying homage to a hunger striker who died two years ago.

Some 200 pro-government protesters shouted slogans and insults at members and supporters of the Ladies in White opposition group at the home of Laura Pollan, the late leader of the dissident group.

"Down with the worms!" and "Long Live Raul!" the government partisans shouted, the latter a reference to Cuban President Raul Castro.

Cuba considers all dissidents to be mercenaries sent by Washington to destabilize the island's government. Pro-government protesters occasionally show up to scream insults at Ladies in White gatherings, particularly on important dates or anniversaries.

Cuba maintains the counterprotests are spontaneous, though little is done to disguise coordination with security agents on the scene.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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