A Catholic church in the central Cuban city of Cienfuegos has banned female relatives of political prisoners from attending mass unless they no longer wear white, a color associated with political imprisonment in the nation. The slight to families of the abused follows the bewildering remark from Archbishop of Havana Jaime Ortega that Cuba no longer has prisoners of conscience.
Eight members of the Ladies in White activist group have attended Sunday Catholic Mass wearing white for years, sitting in the pews in silence unless participating in the Mass. No reports have surfaced of the women themselves–mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters of prisoners of conscience–disturbing the Mass. Nonetheless, a priest in Cienfuegos expelled them from his service, ordering them never to wear white again in his church if they wish to attend services.
The priest, identified as “Father Tarciso,” told Diario de Cuba that the women were “disrespectful,” stating, “I had told them that the way things are could not continue to be. … I cannot allow our community to be further fractured,” he argued. He accused them of taking photographs inside the church, which the ladies deny. Miladis Espino Díaz, a representative of the Ladies in White, noted that they were expelled from the church and, upon walking out, could hear the priest apologize to those in attendance for not having done it sooner.
“We do not only go to church because we are Ladies in White,” Espino Díaz told the newspaper, “but because we believe in God. We sing, we pray, we participate, we do nothing wrong.”
Following their removal from the church, the women testified to being the victim of a number of offensive acts, including a man “exposing himself and urinating in front of them,” “obscene gestures using fingers,” and “being called prostitutes.”
Offenses to the Ladies in White are common as they attempt to attend Mass; in a particularly gruesome instance last year, one woman was tarred for wearing white to the service.
Two male supporters of the group, Emilio García Moreira and Alexander Veliz García, began a hunger strike Thursday to support the return of the women to Mass.
Catholic religion is heavily regulated in communist Cuba, where it is technically a counterrevolutionary activity but has managed to persist, particularly given overtures by Pope Francis towards the Castro dictatorship. “If he keeps talking like this, I’ll return to the Church,” Raúl Castro said of the Pope this year following his support of major U.S. concessions to the Castro regime. Pope Francis was a direct mediator between President Obama and Raúl Castro before the American head of state chose to strip Cuba of its State Sponsor of Terrorism status–despite no evidence in a change of support to either the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or Hezbollah–in exchange for nothing from Cuba.
Meanwhile, Catholic Mass remains among the most popular locations for mass political arrests. According to the watchdog Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, which keeps a monthly tally of politically motivated arrests in Cuba, authorities made 641 political arrests in May, the latest month for which statistics are available. Out of the 641 arrests, 219 occurred either at a Mass or outside a church, where Ladies in White were arrested before they could attend services. Thirty instances of Mass-related arrests took place in May.
Despite overt targeting on the part of Cuban authorities, Catholic officials have insisted on defending the Cuban government against their congregants. In an interview on Spanish radio this month, Archbishop of Havana Jaime Ortega made the perplexing claim that Cuba no longer houses political prisoners. “When Pope Benedict came [to Cuba], there was a pardon of the common prisoners, because there are no political prisoners left in Cuba anymore,” he alleged.
Multiple human rights groups have confirmed that there are at least 71 political prisoners in Cuba, with others arrested on vague charges of disturbing public order and “counterrevolutionary activities” that may also be politically motivated. Cuban activists have reacted with horror to Ortega’s remarks, particularly in light of a scheduled visit to the island by Pope Francis himself in September. The visit, said 17-year political prisoner Jorge Luis García Pérez, will be “a very dangerous visit, because it will serve to legitimize the regime like never before.” Berta Soler, head of the Ladies in White group, responded with similar outrage, given that Ortega’s remarks render the families of the women in her group nonexistent. “We find it deplorable that Cardinal [Ortega] uses the same rhetoric as the Cuban government. The Catholic Church should not be biased; it should protect and shelter every suffering, defenseless person,” she said in a statement.