HAVANA — With a papal visit looming, dissidents occupied a Catholic church here in a bold show of activism, demanding Pope Benedict XVI press for political freedom in Cuba, religious and dissident sources said Wednesday.
Cuba's Catholic church quickly slammed the move as "illegitimate and irresponsible."
"This is a coordinated, planned strategy by groups in different regions around the country. It is not some whim ... it was arranged apparently to create critical situations ahead of Pope Benedict VXI's visit," said a statement from the archdiocese led by Havana Archbishop Jaime Ortega.
The protesters, five women and eight men, are members of the outlawed opposition Republican Party of Cuba (PRC), group member Julio Beltran told AFP.
The group entered the Our Lady of Charity church in central Havana late Tuesday and spent the night at the church. By midday Wednesday, they were still on the scene.
Police guarded over the area but did not intervene, and the archbishop's office said the authorities had promise not to enter the church.
The protesters' demands include unconditional freedom for political prisoners, an end to repression and persecution of regime opponents, access to uncensored news and freedom of travel.
Benedict is scheduled to visit Cuba -- the only one-party Communist ruled nation in the Americas -- from March 26-28, 14 years after Pope John Paul II's historic visit in January 1998.
Roberto Betancourt, a priest at the church, said he received a letter from the protesters, who promise to leave once they received a response from senior church clerics.
The local Roman Catholic church, led by Cardinal Ortega, has urged Cubans not to hold political protests ahead of or during the pontiff's visit. And church officials slammed use of the church for non-spiritual activities.
"Any acts that seek to turn places of worship into a place for political demonstrations, disregarding the authority of the priest or the right of most people who go there in search of spritual peace or prayer time, certainly are illegitimate and irresponsible," the archdiocese statement said.
It also said "similar situations" have developed around the Caribbean nation of 11.2 million "but occupiers already have left the churches." It did not say how many incidents there were or where they took place.
Some Cuban opposition members are critical of church cooperation with the Communist state, which has included mediating the release of political prisoners. But the church is the most influential non-state actor in a society overwhelmingly controlled by the government.
After decades of official atheism, the Cuban regime now has more cordial relations with the Catholic and other churches. Most Cubans, however, do not consider themselves practicing Catholics.
The pope is scheduled to fly to Santiago de Cuba on March 26, following a visit to Mexico, and celebrate mass in the same town square where John Paul II celebrated services. President Raul Castro will welcome him.
The pope will then make a private visit to El Cobre, just outside Santiago, Cuba's second largest city on its eastern end. This year marks the 400th anniversary of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, a statue of Mary found in the sea off the village and Cuba's patroness.
Benedict will then fly to Havana, where Cardinal Jaime Ortega will greet him. The pope, 84, is to again meet the president, 80, and may meet his brother, longtime Cuban leader Fidel Castro, 85.
The pope is scheduled to wrap up the visit on March 28 with a mass in Havana's sprawling Jose Marti Revolution Square, where government rallies are routinely held.