“Whatever may happen, the Church in Cuba will not give up in the face of the difficulties”

Both the Cuban people and the Catholic Church in the country are living through a time of change, and yet the lack of true reforms and the lack of resources together constitute one of the greatest challenges facing society. Such is the situation, as explained to the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation ACN International by Father Rolando Montes de Oca, a Cuban priest of the Archdiocese of Camaguey, who is currently living and studying in Rome. Aged 37, and belonging to the “Schönstatt” movement, he expresses his concern at the lack of a genuine religious opening in Cuba – consisting not merely of words but of deeds as well – in which families can freely choose the education of their children and the Church is allowed more places or centres in which it can demonstrate that “we are not a danger to Cuban society” but in fact quite the contrary.

The Castro era finally and definitively ended in April 2018. Fidel and Raul Castro have now been succeeded by Miguel Díaz-Canel as the country’s new president. How do the people see the new government?

I would say that it continues to be exactly the same as before. President Díaz-Canel himself has repeated on a number of occasions that his mission is to assure the continuity of the so-called “historical process”, or in other words the socialism initiated by Fidel Castro as the political, economic and social path to follow. Moreover, on his very first address as president, he stated that this continuity is the absolute priority of his government and insisted that it would still be Raul Castro who will take every fundamental decision for the country.

One of the first administrative actions of the new government was the promulgation of the new Constitution, which was endorsed by the Cuban parliament in July. The stated intention of the government was not only to open up to the market economy, but also to strengthen civil rights. How is the question of freedom of religion dealt with in the new Constitution?

There is freedom of worship, in the sense that people can meet together in churches to celebrate their faith. The articles already existing in the former constitution, which stipulate that the Cuban State “recognises, respects and guarantees religious freedom” and that “all individuals have the right to profess, or not profess, a religious creed”, have remained unchanged. However, it is important to understand what is meant by “religious freedom”. In my view it should not refer simply to freedom of worship. Nonetheless, these declarations regarding religious freedom might be seen as a point of reference, an ideal towards which we can advance through dialogue.

The tourists who come to Cuba see among other things churches full of people and an impressive participation in worship by the Catholic faithful. Is it possible to say that Christians can now freely live their faith? Would you say that the era of discrimination has come to an end?

Of course, things are not as they were in the time of the old Soviet Union. And even though the Internet is still not available to all the Cuban people, there are more and more people able to connect to the network, so that the modus operandi of the government is becoming more and more publicly visible, in the sense that it can cross national frontiers and is increasingly liable to generate notice in the international sphere. For its part, the Cuban system is very much concerned to project an image of democracy, of a Cuba that is fully free.

Nonetheless, although there is freedom of worship, I believe there is still a long way to go before we can arrive at true religious freedom. For example, Cuban families do not have the right to choose what kind of education they will give to their children, but are still forced to educate them under a Marxist atheist ideology. Despite claiming to offer a secular education, the philosophy that underlies it in regard to its analysis of history and reality is still very much an atheist and materialist one.

Does the Church also face restrictions in religious matters?

The pilgrim Church in Cuba is denied the right to its own space in the mass media. Except during papal visits and for an additional few minutes a year granted to the bishops on the local radio stations, there is no access to the media for the Church. Another major obstacle has been the ban on building churches and places of worship, despite the fact they allowed two or three churches to be built recently, after almost 60 years of petitions and dialogue.

There are also some very commonly occurring incidents that happen in the villages and towns, such as bans imposed on practical pastoral activities and sometimes against certain individual priests or certain specific works of charity on the part of the Church and so forth. These are disagreeable incidents, the origin of which is not clear – whether they are by order of government officials or by the independent decision of minor regional authorities.

And although, after so many years of religious repression, there is now some progress to be seen in regard to freedom of worship, the idea that seems to prevail in many people’s minds is that if they overstep their authority in acting against the Church, it will not cause them any problems, but if on the other hand they go too far in favouring religion, they may well have to face problems as a result.

 

“Whatever may happen, the Church in Cuba will not give up in the face of the difficulties”

 

And how is the Church to overcome these restrictions?

Although the Church in Cuba faces many difficulties, she will never yield. We are denied regular access to the mass media, yet we do not cease to convey the Gospel message. In the dioceses the bishops are producing magazines and newsletters which, in addition to speaking about faith, aim to enlighten the ordinary lives of the Cuban people. Although we don’t have access to education, because as I have already mentioned, it is practically entirely atheist, we do have our own formation centres where we can convey true Christian and civic values. It is extremely difficult to build churches, but in many small towns and villages that do not have them, there is still the Christian community, living, celebrating and bearing witness to faith in the private homes of those who open their doors to us so that we can celebrate the Eucharist and offer a Christian formation.

What is the role of the Church in Cuba?

We strive as a Church to engage in dialogue and show that we are not a danger to Cuban society. And still more than this, the Church has a great deal to offer and has the right to be allowed to have certain spaces in which it can better carry out this service. The aim is not to oppose each other but to help become united, by respecting the diversity of ideas, and so that one day it may be possible to arrive at a Cuba “of all and for the good of all”, without excluding anyone.

And what is the biggest challenge facing you?

In my view, the problem that most affects the Cuban Church at the present time has to do with her mission as a mediator in the process of national reconciliation, which is something we regard as necessary today. The Cuban people are divided, and the Church in Cuba is striving to find space for everyone and constantly calling on people to dialogue. Tragically, ever since the beginning of the “conflict”, there has not been any openness to dialogue, either on the part of the official government positions or on the part of the most radical opposition. As a result the Church is sometimes accused of being “communist” and at other times accused of allowing herself to be manipulated by the opposition or by US political interests. Both charges are false; the Church in Cuba is simply not being properly listened to. While the Communist Party demands our silence in the face of the grave and continuing social problems, as the price of good relations between the Church and the state, the other side often interprets the mission of the Church as a militant political posture, which excludes and condemns any relationship with the government, in absolute terms. Whereas the position of the Church in Cuba is not as an absolute belligerent in either sense. The Church is a mother, she is not the enemy of anyone. The Church is the Spouse of Christ, and she will not become wedded to any earthly powers, however difficult this may be for many to understand.

 

Cuba - Diocese of Holguín
Cuba – Diocese of Holguín

How do you see the future of the Church in Cuba, and how can the charitable agencies such as the foundation ACN International help her in her needs?

It is very hard to imagine the future of Cuba. We dream of a future of peace, built through dialogue, justice and forgiveness. But whatever may happen, the Church in Cuba will not give up in the face of the difficulties. She has learnt to open windows when the doors were closed. The Church in Cuba is a community of hope which strives to transmit this hope to a society that is very much in need.

The problems facing the Church in Cuba are the problems faced by all the Cuban people. One of the most serious among them is the lack of financial resources. ACN has been very much involved in the evangelising activity of the parishes and has supported the formation of new priests in so many different ways, while also helping our mission through the publication of Bibles, catechisms, prayer books and teaching materials and funding the purchase of vehicles to enable the missionaries to travel and reach their communities. You have helped us to rebuild our churches when they were damaged by natural disasters, and in so many other ways besides. The enormous aid given by ACN to the Cuban Church has borne, continues to bear and will bear fruit in the future as well. Many of these fruits can indeed already be seen on a simple visit to the country. It is as though God is acting through the action of ACN, sometimes in ways that are unseen but which continue in the background and exercise their influence through conversions, the diffusion of Christian values and more humane attitudes, etc.

You yourself have known the work of ACN ever since your childhood, have you not?

I remember with great gratitude that day when I was still little boy and when our parish priest and catechist arrived, overjoyed, and bringing with them the Child’s Bible produced by ACN. I was only little then and I wanted to have good book about the faith, explained in the language of children. I read the whole book and I fell in love with God through the pages of this Bible. I still keep it in my home to this day. And since then I have used it many times for the religious instruction of children. Yes, the ACN Child’s Bible is something closely linked to the roots of my personal experience of God.

 

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Que signifie pour vous cette visite ?

La visite du Pape nous remontera le moral, plus que toute autre chose. Tous les yeux de la planète seront dirigés vers Baghdeda. Le monde saura ainsi ce qui est arrivé à cette ville : les terribles destructions et la migration forcée. Ce serait également bien si nous recevions ensuite un peu plus d’aide et de soutien. Cette visite est très importante pour nous qui sommes ici, surtout après l’énorme migration forcée de tant des nôtres. Cette visite signifie que nous ne sommes pas seuls et qu’il y a des gens qui prient pour nous. Cela nous donnera de l’espoir, nous encouragera à rester dans notre pays et à ne pas le quitter.

Qu’aimeriez-vous dire au Saint-Père ?

Si j’ai l’occasion de le rencontrer, je voudrais le remercier pour sa visite qui nous rend très heureux, et pour ses prières. Je tiens également à le remercier pour toute l’aide qu’il nous a procurée ces derniers temps. Je n’oublie pas sa grande solidarité et le geste qu’il a fait en vendant aux enchères la Lamborghini qu’on lui avait donnée pour soutenir avec l’argent récolté la reconstruction de la plaine de Ninive. Je voudrais aussi qu’il continue à prier pour nous afin que la paix arrive en Irak.

Qu’aimeriez-vous lui montrer à Qaraqosh/Baghdeda ? Que devrait-il visiter ?

Je voudrais lui montrer l’église historique Al-Tahira et des photos de Baghdeda, je voudrais qu’il voie comment l’État Islamique l’a détruite et comment les gens d’ici ont eu le courage de la reconstruire.

¿Qué significa la visita para usted?
La visita del Papa levantará el ánimo y la moral, más que cualquier otra cosa. Todos los ojos del mundo se dirigirán a Baghdeda. Así, el mundo sabrá lo que le sucedió a esta ciudad. La terrible destrucción y la migración forzada. También sería bueno si luego recibimos más ayuda y apoyo. Esta visita es realmente importante para nosotros, los que estamos aquí, especialmente después de la enorme migración forzada de tantos de los nuestros. La visita significa que no estamos solos y hay quienes rezan por nosotros. Esto nos dará esperanza, nos animará a permanecer en nuestra tierra y no dejarla.

¿Qué le gustaría decirle al santo padre?
Si tengo la oportunidad de encontrarme con él: quiero agradecerle su visita, que nos hace muy felices, y su oración. También quiero darle las gracias por todo lo que nos ha ayudado durante el último periodo. No me olvido de su gran solidaridad y del gesto de subastar el Lamborghini para apoyar con ese dinero la reconstrucción de la llanura de Nínive. También quiero que siga orando por nosotros para que la paz llegue a Irak.

¿Qué le gustaría mostrarle en Baghdeda /Qaraqosh? ¿Qué debería visitar?
Quiero mostrarle la histórica iglesia Al-Tahira y fotos de Baghdeda, quiero que vea cómo fue destruida por ISIS y cómo la gente de aquí ha sido tan fuerte para reconstruirla nuevamente.

Was bedeutet der Besuch für Sie?
Der Besuch des Papstes wird die Stimmung und die Moral heben, mehr als alles andere. Alle Augen der Welt werden auf Baghdida gerichtet sein. Dann wird die Welt erfahren, was mit dieser Stadt passiert ist, die schreckliche Zerstörung und die erzwungene Migration. Es wäre auch gut, wenn wir anschließend mehr Hilfe und Unterstützung bekommen würden. Dieser Besuch ist wirklich wichtig für uns hier, besonders nach der großen Zwangsmigration so vieler unserer Leute. Der Besuch bedeutet, dass wir nicht allein sind, und dass es Menschen gibt, die für uns beten. Das wird uns Hoffnung geben, es wird uns ermutigen, in unserem Land zu bleiben und es nicht zu verlassen.

Was würden Sie dem Heiligen Vater gerne sagen?
Wenn ich die Gelegenheit habe, ihn zu treffen: Ich möchte ihm für seinen Besuch, der uns sehr glücklich macht, und für sein Gebet danken. Ich möchte mich auch bei ihm für alles bedanken, was uns in der letzten Zeit geholfen hat. Ich werde nie seine große Solidarität vergessen sowie die Geste, den Lamborghini zu versteigern (siehe Link zur Meldung), um mit diesem Geld den Wiederaufbau der Ninive-Ebene zu unterstützen. Ich möchte auch, dass er weiterhin für uns betet, damit im Irak Frieden einkehrt.

Was möchten Sie ihm in Baghdida /Karakosch zeigen? Was sollte er besuchen?
Ich möchte ihm die historische Al-Tahira-Kirche zeigen und Bilder von Baghdida, ich möchte, dass er sieht, wie alles von ISIS zerstört wurde und welcher Kraft die Menschen hier es wiederaufgebaut haben.

What does the Pope’s visit mean to you?
The papal visit will lift up our spirits and morale more than anything else. All the eyes of the world will be on Baghdeda. And in this way the world will know what happened to this city. The terrible destruction and the forcible ethnic cleansing. It will also be a good thing if afterwards we get more support and help. This visit is really important to us, to those of us who are living here, especially after the massive ethnic cleansing and expulsion of so many of us. His visit means that we are not alone and that there are people who are praying for us. This will give us fresh hope and encourage us to persevere, here on our own soil, and not leave it.

What would you like to say to the Holy Father?
If I get the opportunity to meet him, I would like to be able to thank him for his visit, which has made us very happy, and for his prayers. I would also like to thank him for all he has done to help us in recent times. I have not forgotten his great gesture of solidarity in auctioning the Lamborghini in order to use the money to help pay for the reconstruction of our homes on the Niniveh plains. I would also like to ask him to continue praying for us and for peace to return to Iraq.

What would you like to show him in Qaraqosh/ Baghdeda? Which places should he visit?
I would like to show him our historic Al-Tahira church, and some photos of Baghdeda. I’d like him to be able to see how it was destroyed by IS and how the people here have worked so hard recently to rebuild it once more.

Qu’est-ce que cette visite signifie pour vous ?

La visite du Pape est ce que nous désirions le plus ici. C’est une grande bénédiction. Nous avons un grand désir de le voir. Ce qui rajoute de l’importance à cette visite, c’est la situation de vulnérabilité que nous, chrétiens, subissons en Irak. Il y a plusieurs raisons à cette fragilité, toutes sont les séquelles de l’État Islamique. Toutes ces destructions ont grandement contribué à l’émigration des chrétiens. De nombreux problèmes pèsent sur nous. Mais par sa visite, le Pape nous donnera de l’espérance et de la confiance, il nous encouragera et réduira notre fardeau. Bien que la situation soit instable en Irak en ce qui concerne la sécurité, tout spécialement dans le domaine politique, on s’attend à ce qu’à l’arrivée du Pape, sa sécurité soit correctement assurée.

Qu’aimeriez-vous dire au Saint-Père ?

Je voudrais lui demander de me donner sa bénédiction, de bénir mon travail et le dévouement des prêtres d’ici, et de bénir le peuple par ses prières. Je voudrais lui demander d’aider tous ceux qui sont en danger dans ce pays, qu’ils soient chrétiens ou musulmans. Qu’il tente de mobiliser les pays du monde entier pour soutenir ce pays qui a besoin d’aide.

Qu’aimeriez-vous lui montrer à Qaraqosh/Baghdeda ? Que devrait-il visiter ?

J’aimerais qu’il visite l’église Al-Tahira, parce que c’est un symbole et un élément du patrimoine de Baghdeda. Cette église est la mère, le foyer et le patrimoine de chacun des habitants de Baghdeda. Nos ancêtres ont construit cette église, nous avons tous le sentiment d’en faire partie. Bien sûr, nous serions heureux qu’il visite de nombreux endroits, des églises, monastères et maisons traditionnelles, et qu’il rencontre également beaucoup de gens qui ont le désir de le voir.

¿Qué significa la visita para usted?
La visita del Papa es lo que más hemos deseado aquí. Es una gran bendición. Sentimos un gran anhelo de verlo. Lo que agrega importancia a esta visita son las condiciones tan vulnerables que sufrimos los cristianos en Irak. Hay varios motivos para esa fragilidad, todas las secuelas que ha dejado el ISIS, esa enorme destrucción ha llevado en gran medida a la emigración de cristianos. Muchos problemas pesan sobre nosotros. Pero cuando nos visite, nos dará esperanza, confianza y aliento y reducirá esta carga. Además del hecho de que la situación de seguridad en Irak, especialmente la política, es inestable, se espera que a la llegada del Papa se garantice su seguridad de manera correcta.

¿Qué le gustaría decirle al santo padre?
Querría pedirle que me dé su bendición, que bendiga mi servicio y la entrega de los sacerdotes aquí y que bendiga al pueblo a través de sus plegarias. Le pido que ayude a todos los que están en peligro en este país, ya sean cristianos o musulmanes. Que intente movilizar a los países del mundo para que apoyen a este país que necesita ayuda.

 ¿Qué le gustaría mostrarle en Baghdeda / Qaraqosh? ¿Qué debería visitar?
Me encantaría que visite la iglesia Al-Tahira, porque es símbolo y patrimonio de Baghdeda. Esta iglesia es madre, hogar y herencia de cada uno de los habitantes de Baghdeda. Nuestros antepasados ​​construyeron esta iglesia, todos nos sentimos parte de ella. Ciertamente, nos alegraría que visitara muchos lugares, iglesias, monasterios y casas tradicionales,  también que vea a muchas personas que anhelan verlo.

Was bedeutet der Besuch für Sie?
Der Besuch des Papstes ist das, was wir uns hier am meisten gewünscht haben. Es ist ein großer Segen. Wir spüren eine starke Sehnsucht, ihn zu sehen. Was diesen Besuch noch wichtiger macht, sind die äußerst prekären Bedingungen, unter denen wir Christen im Irak leiden. Es gibt mehrere Gründe für diese Zerbrechlichkeit. All die Folgen, die ISIS hinterlassen hat, diese enorme Zerstörung hat in großem Maße zur Auswanderung von Christen geführt. Viele Probleme lasten auf uns. Aber wenn er uns besucht, wird er uns Hoffnung, Zuversicht und Ermutigung geben und diese Last verringern. Auch wenn die Sicherheitslage im Irak, insbesondere die politische Situation, instabil ist, hoffen wir, dass bei der Ankunft des Papstes seine Sicherheit ausreichend gewährleistet ist.

 

Was würden Sie dem Heiligen Vater gerne sagen?
Ich möchte ihn bitten, mir seinen Segen zu geben, meinen Dienst und die Hingabe der Priester hier zu segnen und die Menschen durch seine Gebete zu segnen. Ich bitte ihn, all jenen zu helfen, die in diesem Land in Gefahr sind, ob sie nun Christen oder Muslime sind; und die Länder der Welt zu mobilisieren, um dieses Land, das Hilfe braucht, zu unterstützen.

Was möchten Sie ihm in Baghdida / Karakosch zeigen? Was sollte er besuchen?
Ich möchte, dass er die Al-Tahira-Kirche besucht, denn sie ist ein Symbol und Erbe von Baghdida. Diese Kirche ist die Mutter, die Heimat und das Vermächtnis eines jeden einzelnen Menschen in Baghdida. Unsere Vorfahren haben diese Kirche erbaut, wir alle fühlen uns als Teil von ihr. Sicherlich würden wir uns freuen, wenn er viele Orte, Kirchen, Klöster und traditionelle Häuser besuchen würde, und auch, wenn er viele Menschen treffen würde, die sich danach sehnen, ihn zu sehen.

What does the visit mean to you?
The papal visit is the thing we have longed for most of all here. It will be a great blessing. We have a great yearning to see him. What gives added importance to this visit is the so very vulnerable situation that we are suffering as Christians in Iraq. There are many reasons for this vulnerability, including the aftermath of what IS left behind, the enormous destruction which has led in such large measure to the emigration of the Christians. There are many problems weighing on us. But when he comes to visit us, he will give us new hope and confidence and some relief from this burden. In addition there is the fact that the security situation in Iraq, and especially the political situation, is so unstable, so we are hoping that when the Pope does arrive they will guarantee his security in the way that they should.

 

What would you like to say to the Holy Father?
I would like to ask him to give me his blessing, to bless my ministry and the hard work of all the priests here, and also to bless all the people through his prayers. I would ask him to help all those in danger in this country, whether they are Christians or Muslims. And that he might strive to encourage the countries of the world to support this nation, which is truly in need.

What would you like to show him in Qaraqosh/ Baghdeda? What places ought he to visit?
I would love him to visit the Al-Tahira church, because it is a symbol and a rich cultural legacy of Baghdeda. This church is the mother, the home and the inheritance of every one of the inhabitants of Baghdeda. Our forefathers built this church, and we all feel we are a part of it. Of course, we would be happy for him to visit many different places – churches, monasteries and traditional homes – and also for him to be able to meet all the many people who are longing to see him.

Que signifie pour vous cette visite ?

Elle a une valeur morale, et non pas économique. Cette question occupera l’opinion publique mondiale, et tout spécialement irakienne. J’ai l’impression d’y tenir une place importante.

 

Qu’aimeriez-vous dire au Saint-Père ?

Ce sera formidable de faire sa connaissance, et je voudrais lui dire : « Nous avons besoin d’une protection internationale parce que notre communauté chrétienne a subi une migration forcée ».

Qu’aimeriez-vous lui montrer à Qaraqosh/Baghdeda ? Que devrait-il visiter ?

J’aimerais lui montrer les églises et les maisons brûlées, afin qu’il voie les dégâts que l’État Islamique a laissés derrière lui dans cette ville. Et aussi notre Musée du patrimoine de Baghdeda pour lui présenter notre histoire et notre culture.

¿Qué significa la visita para usted?
La visita tiene un valor moral, no económico. Este tema ocupará la opinión pública en el mundo y especialmente en Irak. Siento que tengo un lugar importante en él.

 

¿Qué le gustaría decirle al santo padre?
Será genial conocerlo y querría decirle “necesitamos protección internacional, porque nuestra comunidad cristiana ha sufrido una migración forzada”.

¿Qué le gustaría mostrarle en Baghdeda /Qaraqosh? ¿Qué debería visitar?
Me gustaría mostrarle las iglesias y las casas quemadas, para que vea el daño que dejó ISIS en esta ciudad. Y también nuestro Museo del patrimonio de Baghdeda para presentarle nuestro historia y cultura.

Was bedeutet der Besuch für Sie?
Der Besuch hat einen moralischen Wert, keinen wirtschaftlichen. Er wird die öffentliche Meinung in der Welt und insbesondere im Irak beherrschen. Ich habe das Gefühl, dass ich einen wichtigen Anteil daran habe.

Was würden Sie dem Heiligen Vater gerne sagen?
Es wird großartig sein, ihn zu treffen, und ich möchte ihm sagen: „Wir brauchen internationalen Schutz, weil unsere christliche Gemeinschaft unter der erzwungenen Auswanderung gelitten hat“.

Was möchten Sie ihm in Baghdida /Karakosch zeigen? Was sollte er besuchen?
Ich möchte ihm die Kirchen und ausgebrannten Häuser zeigen, damit er den Schaden sieht, den ISIS in dieser Stadt angerichtet hat. Und auch unser Heimatmuseum in Baghdida, um ihm unsere Geschichte und Kultur näher zu bringen.

What does this visit mean to you?
This visit has a moral value rather than an economic one. This is a topic that will engage public opinion around the world and especially in Iraq. I feel as though I have an important part to play in it.

What would you like to say to the Holy Father?

It would be wonderful to be able to meet him, and I would like to be able to say to him, “We need international protection, because our Christian community was forcibly displaced.”

What would you like to show him in Qaraqosh/ Baghdeda? What places should he visit?
I would like to be able to show him the churches and houses that were burnt out, so that he could see the destruction left behind by IS in this city. And also our Baghdeda Heritage Museum, so that we can show him our history and culture.