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Cuba dissidents vow to stay in church
Dissidents in Cuba church vow to stay, demand pope mediate human rights grievances
By The Associated Press

HAVANA (AP) ' A group of 13 Cuban dissidents who have occupied a Havana church for two days said Thursday that they are no longer demanding an audience with Pope Benedict XVI when he visits this month, but vowed to continue their protest.

Instead they are asking the pontiff to mediate a list of their grievances with the Cuban government, said Fred Calderon, a spokesman for the dissidents, in a phone interview from a closed-off room where he and 12 others have holed up since Tuesday at the Church of Charity of Cobre in Central Havana.

Calderon said his group wants Benedict to speak with authorities about freeing people imprisoned for political crimes, ending intimidation of dissidents, increasing access to information, expanding private property rights, doing away with travel restrictions and establishing a transitional government to end a half decade of Communist rule under Fidel and Raul Castro.



"We want him to intercede on our behalf ... and be a mediator for our demands," Calderon told The Associated Press.

Such a result seems unlikely given the church's forceful rejection of the protest so far, which a spokesman termed "illegitimate" and "disrespectful." Even prominent Cuban dissidents have questioned whether disrupting a house of worship was an appropriate tactic.

Cuba's government has had little to say, but generally considers dissidents to be mercenaries trying to undermine its authority. State media, which rarely mentions the opposition, published the Catholic Church's condemnation of the occupation in Thursday's papers.

"Nobody has the right to turn temples into political trenches," read the communique from church spokesman Orlando Marquez, which was issued the previous evening.

Calderon said he was aware of the negative response, but vowed not to blink.

"We will not leave," he said. "We do not see the church as a trench but as a refuge."

Cuban authorities and the dissidents disagree on whether the government holds any political prisoners.

Authorities freed the last of 75 anti-government activists and social commentators arrested in a 2003 crackdown on dissent last year.

Most of those inmates still behind bars for political crimes were convicted of violent offenses like hijacking and armed assault, which keeps them from being recognized as prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International.

Benedict's Cuba trip is scheduled for March 26-28.

___

Andrea Rodriguez is on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ARodriguezAP.


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