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Catholicism in a communist land: Pope Benedict XVI travels to Cuba

Cuba was declared an atheist state after the 1959 revolution, but many dissidents are looking to Pope Benedict XVI to help bring more political reform to the island.

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"The arrival of His Holiness here in Cuba brings a message of love which we the people of Cuba need because we are suffering," says Berta Soler, the leader of the group. She noted many of the Ladies in White were beaten by police during their arrest, yet, they returned to the same church yesterday to continue their weekly ritual of protest. This time, an audience of international press far outnumbered protesters themselves, and though Cuban authorities were present, they did not interfere outside the Santa Rita church on Havana's 5th Avenue, in one of the city's wealthier areas.

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"The Cuban people need to have their human rights respected. It's necessary for our freedom,” says Ms. Soler. “But, the pope won't bring freedom,” she says, echoing Payá’s sentiment that Cubans must achieve freedom for themselves.

Inside the church, Father José Pérez Riera was diplomatic in his reaction to what some claim is the hijacking of the Church for political gain. "It's very difficult today for the pope to visit a country without political implications," he says, flanked by posters publicizing Pope Benedict XVI’s visit.

"For the church, [the Ladies in White protest is] neither good or bad; whoever needs the church is welcome," Mr. Riera says, adding that the political action taking place was outside the church's walls.

IN PICTURES: Pope Benedict XVI 

Payá, the dissident, agrees. "It's not the Church which is stifling our freedom, it's the government," Payá says. He founded the Christian Liberation Movement in 1988, an organization focused on political human rights more so than religion. He said group members have been threatened by authorities recently, told not to come near Papal events.

Many fled religion

The government sees dissidents as a threat to the regime. Through its party newspaper, Granma, the administration has described the country's dissidents as "tiny counter-revolutionary groups ... funded by the Miami anti-Cuba mafia," and the Ladies in White as "mercenaries of the [US] empire."

The pope’s visit to Cuba could be described as a tightrope walk, balancing calls from dissidents and the delicacy demanded by the Cuban state. However, Benedict XVI has his church’s mission and interests to look out for as well. After the revolution largely quashed Catholicism, many believers fled the religion. Other beliefs like Christian Evangelism and the syncretic West African-influenced santería religion were able to fill the void left by the expulsion of the Catholic Church and are now major influences on the religious landscape here. 

Weighing meat in a set of old fashioned scales in central Havana, butcher Ismael Camacho points towards a portrait of Fidel Castro on his faded green wall. "This is our pope," he says proudly. 

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