CNS photo/Paul Haring

People before politics

  • September 24, 2015

To be a Christian in Cuba means being subjected to state surveillance, discrimination, harassment and sometimes arrest. It also means being a casualty of the punishing U.S. trade embargo that inflicts unjust suffering on all Cubans.

It’s been this way for half a century. The human rights and religious freedoms of ordinary Cubans are routinely suppressed by their own socialist government while their right to economic prosperity is cynically blocked by the powerful democracy just 150 km away.

Releasing Cubans from this ideological vice has become one of Pope Francis’ missions. It was among the reasons he spent three days in Cuba before his more publicized apostolic journey to Washington, New York and Philadelphia. His pastoral visit to the island nation followed the Pope’s back-room role a year ago that helped move Cuba and the United States towards normalizing a relationship that was severed when Fidel Castro’s revolutionaries seized power in 1959.

The Vatican is clear about its vision for Cuba. It wants the United States to end the trade embargo that has locked Cubans in a poverty trap, and it wants Cuba to respect the human rights of its citizens and, in particular, stop persecuting Christians. The Pope’s concern is the physical and spiritual welfare of millions of ordinary Cubans, the victims of ideological warfare. He wants governments to put people before politics, and rightly so.

The Berlin Wall was taken down almost overnight 26 years ago, yet Cuban and American leaders persist in dismantling their divisive policies one brick at a time. Despite some progress, a stubborn U.S. Congress has refused entreaties from Barack Obama and Pope Francis to end the blockade, while in Cuba Raul Castro has allowed some reforms but continues to target political dissidents and church-going Christians.

Both sides are clinging to destructive Cold War dogma that promotes ideology ahead of common good. What Cuba requires, said Pope Francis during a homily in Havana, is for leaders to abandon a type of service that is self-serving and founded on ideology. “Service is never ideological, for we do not serve ideas, we serve people,” he said.

With respect to religious freedom, Cubans technically have the right to worship but the state regulates religious practice. That has to end. Further, the Pope is clear that religious freedom entails more than a right to attend church. It must also permit citizens “to be both true to their beliefs and also active players in public life, on the grounds that it’s good for society when people of faith are able to apply their values in concrete acts of service,” he said.

Cubans have been politically, religiously and economically tormented for half a century. If Pope Francis’ time in Cuba helps reverse that, it is time well spent.

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