As the fifty year economic embargo and diplomatic isolation between the U.S. and Cuba comes to a close, the thaw of their historically icy relationship could have more than just social and cultural implications. The renewed affiliation between the two countries, which began late last year, could have implications on how the Church operates in Cuba. In fact, the first Catholic church since the 1959 Cuban revolution is set to be built in the small town of Sandino - a promising start to the renaissance of Catholic culture within the country. “Let us hope that the future will bring peace and normality to the relations between the two nations,” Bishop Alfredo Petit Vergel, an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of St. Christopher of Havana, told international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need March 25. The Holy See aided in the restoration in Cuban-US diplomatic relations, playing a key role behind the prisoner exchange between the two countries last December with hopes that the restored relationship will improve human rights and religious freedom within Cuba. Some US politicians and commentators have argued that the move is a “victory for oppression.” Bishop Petit responded that arguing that the lifting of the embargo gives a victory to a government that denies fundamental rights to its people “is a poor consideration of the Cuban reality as a whole.” “Let us wait for future events to see who is right,” he advised. Under Fidel Castro, who came to power in 1959, only two years before Bishop Petit was ordained a priest, the Church was heavily restricted, with thousands of priests jailed or exiled. Although some measures of freedom have been allowed since then, the Church in Cuba is still monitored. Bishop Petit said that “Among other obstacles, there has been the lack of priests and pastoral workers. The government has always controlled the number of priests in the country -- and it is never enough to do the pastoral work. That number has always been capped at 400 in a country of 11 million people.” “The other difficulty for the Church has been gaining access to the media,” he added, while also noting that the Cuban government does not currently have oversight or control over the Church's initiatives in the country. The greatest need of the Church in Cuba is prayers, Bishop Petit reflected. “Then, we must find ways to address the lack of priests and pastoral workers. Also, there is a need for economic support so that we can supply medicines and food to the very poorest people and we need the means to fulfill all our pastoral duties and attend to the spiritual needs of the faithful.” He reflected that “the members of the Catholic Church in Cuba, as in every other place in the world, are part of the Cuban people,” saying the presence of the Church in Cuba brings a transcendent and Christian dimension to everyday life. “The Catholic Church does not look for special privileges in Cuban society,” Bishop Petit concluded. “The Catholic Church in Cuba, as in every other country of the world, looks only for the space to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
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