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Church, Cuban officials clash over displays of faith

Singing traditional hymns with a Caribbean beat, throngs of parishioners pressed against the van carrying the glass-encased statue of the Virgin of Charity to the rural church.

"Oh my mother! There she is!" exclaimed a thin woman in her 40s, crowded against the wall of the church compound as white-robed seminarians carried the image of the dark-skinned Virgin Mary into the sanctuary.The outpouring of emotion generated by Sunday's appearance of Cuba's patron saint was hardly unusual. What was extraordinary, however, were the logistics required to move the statue to the church.

In communist Cuba, the religious processions so popular throughout most of Latin America and the Caribbean are illegal. Thus, Cardinal Jaime Ortega and the other priests accompanying the icon to a special Mass on Sunday were careful not to remove it from the van until the vehicle reached church grounds.

As the Roman Catholic Church tries to fuel enthusiasm for Pope John Paul II's visit here Jan. 21-25, friction has developed between the church and the government over public displays of faith.

The church wants to return to the traditional processions and outdoor Masses of pre-revolutionary Cuba to draw attention to the papal visit.

But that discomfits some government officials, who remember how the open-air religious observances of the early 1960s were likely to turn political - even violent.

The government has never prohibited religious worship within church walls, but public processions have been banned since a clash between Catholics and government forces left a young man dead in 1961.

Reports remain confused, but most agree that government supporters accused the Catholics of being counterrevolutionaries as they carried the statue of the Virgin of Charity through the streets of Havana.

Gunfire erupted, and a young militiaman was struck and killed.

The latest chapter in the often tense relations between the church and government authorities reached its peak on Sunday, when a Mass that was originally scheduled for outdoors was held inside the walls of the small church in this rural community outside Havana.

"We have celebrated the previous Masses under the Cuban sky, which is your sky, which is ours," Ortega prayed to the Virgin of Charity. "Today we have to celebrate inside."

Recalling a procession of Cuba's patron saint through this community's streets many years ago, Ortega lamented that "on this occasion they have not permitted us to do that."

Ortega has celebrated several open-air Masses - beginning with one outside Havana's cathedral last month - exceptional events in a country where public worship is banned.

Although he didn't say why the Mass was held indoors, parishioners and church sources said Ortega had received word earlier from local communist officials that the service had to be moved indoors.

Despite the tension, the cardinal indicated that the next two Masses he will celebrate to generate enthusiasm for the papal visit will be held outdoors.