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Dissidents in Cuba church vow to stay, demand pope mediate human rights grievances
HAVANA (AP) ' A group of 13 Cuban dissidents who have occupied a Havana church for two days are no longer demanding an audience with Pope Benedict XVI when he visits this month, but vowed Thursday to continue their protest.
The dissidents say they are now asking the pontiff to mediate a list of their grievances with the Cuban government, said Fred Calderon, a spokesman for the group, in a phone interview from a closed-off room in the Central Havana Church of Charity where he and 12 others have holed up since Tuesday.
Calderon complained that Catholic officials had refused to bring them food, even though the dissidents have offered to pay for it. He said the group had not eaten anything since the protest began, though they are drinking water.
Numerous phone calls to the church's spokesman in Havana went unanswered, and he did not respond to an email seeking comment.
The church remained partially shuttered Thursday, with no sign of police outside. Traffic was normal and adjacent stands selling flowers and handicrafts were operating as usual.
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-century 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."
A high-ranking priest from the Havana archdiocese has visited the dissidents several times and offered to bring a government official to talk to them, Calderon said.
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.