HAVANA ( - An American priest serving two Catholic parishes in Cuba has been ordered by the Communist government to end his ministry and will now leave the country, he reported on Sunday.

      Father Patrick Sullivan, 52, a Capuchin monk from New York, said he had been ordered by the government to leave his parishes in the city of Santa Clara and was told he could live in Havana until his residence visa ran out in February 1999. Father Sullivan said he had decided to leave immediately. "I understand that if I stay any longer, it will bring some reprisals from the government against the Catholic Church," he said. "This is speculation, but my own opinion is simply that the Pope's visit (in January) was so successful and humiliating for the hard-core Communists that they have to do something to show they are in charge," he added.

      Father Sullivan speculated that he was targeted because he is the only resident American priest working in Cuba, and because of his contact with foreign media in which he criticized the country's political system. He added that he also distributed and taught the UN Declaration of Human Rights in his parishes. The priest worked for two decades in the Central American nations of Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador before coming to Cuba in June 1994. He is one of the many foreigners who make up nearly half of the approximately 250 Catholic priests working on the Caribbean island.

      However, the Communist government of Cuba denied on Monday forcing an American priest to leave two parishes he was serving, and said it was internal Catholic Church matter.

      A government spokesman said the decision to remove the priest from Santa Clara was made by his religious superiors in Cuba and did not originate with the government. But, the head of the Capuchin order in Cuba, Spanish priest Father Felipe Tejerina, said he was personally informed of the government's decision to remove Father Sullivan from Santa Clara. This incident comes as Cuba's Catholics have begun to experience a thaw in relations with the Communist government based on Pope John Paul's historic visit to the Caribbean nation in January.

ACKNOWLEDGMENT:To subscribe to Catholic World News Service, available daily by e-mail, click here .

April 15, 1998 volume 9, no. 73         DAILY CATHOLIC