In a surprisingly tough message, which included criticism of the Catholic Church as well as a defense of his government's Marxist ideology, Fidel Castro welcomed Pope John Paul II to Cuba, but made no effort to conceal their differences.

      "You will not meet the peaceful and good inhabitants who populated this island at the time the first Europeans arrived," said Castro, in a clear negative reference to the arrival of Spanish Catholics in Cuba centuries ago. "The conquest cost the life of millions of Indians; a lot of blood was shed and injustices were committed," Castro added.

      The Cuban dictator immediately compared the Spanish imperial conquest with the current US embargo on his country. "Today some people still attempt genocide," he charged, "by seeking to use hunger to force the submission of a people that refuses to surrender to this economic empire--which is the greatest economic, political, and military power in history, even more powerful than ancient Rome." Castro then compared the Cuban people with the Christian martyrs who suffered under the Roman empire. "Just like the Church, the revolution has many martyrs as well," he added.

      In more personal words to the Holy Father, the Cuban leader praised the Pontiff for "the bravery with which you defend your ideas." He promised that he and the Pope would discuss "many questions about today's world." He promised that during his stay in Cuba the Pope would be able to speak "with all the freedom you might wish for."

      However, Castro took advantage of the opportunity to lash out at the Catholic Church. He recalled his own days of education, at the hands of Jesuit teachers, and said, "I was taught that to be a Protestant, a Jewish, a Buddhist, or a member of other faith was a grave fault worth of severe punishment." He made a oblique charge of racism against the Church, saying that "more than once, in those schools for rich and privileged," he asked why there were no black children, "without receiving a convincing response." And he concluded his attack with a list of "mistakes" made by the Church, including the condemnation of Galileo, the Inquisition, the Crusades, and the conquest of the Americas.

      According to local analysts, Castro took this provocative line in order to emphasize the comparisons and contrasts between the Catholic Church and the Cuban socialist government. He mentioned the alleged mistakes of the Church in an indirect effort to deflect attention from the obvious mistakes made by his Communist allies, the analysts suggested.

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January 23-25, 1998 volume 9, no. 17          DAILY CATHOLIC