World Council of Churches Office of Communication|
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WORLD ECUMENICAL LEADERS MEET WITH FIDEL CASTRO
cf. WCC press update of 12 October 1999
One of Cuba's biggest challenges is to "keep people motivated by solidarity and not by egoism," Cuban president Fidel Castro told an international ecumenical delegation visiting this Caribbean island nation.
Castro met with the group for more than four hours during a dinner at the massive headquarters of the government's Council of State in Havana. The interview began late on 12 October and ended after 3 a.m. on 13 October.
. The delegation was led by the Rev. Dr Konrad Raiser, general secretary of the World Council of Churches (WCC), accompanied by Dr Walter Altmann, president of the Latin American Council of Churches, and the Rev. Carlos Emilio Ham, a president of the Caribbean Conference of Churches.
The discussion between the church leaders and the 73-year old Communist ruler ranged over a wide variety of topics, from the thinking of St. Thomas Aquinas to the problem of foreign debt to the detention in London of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.
Castro, who was educated in Catholic schools as a child, quizzed the group at length about the Protestant Reform, particularly the life and thinking of Martin Luther. Castro described Jesus as "a great social revolutionary". When Raiser and Altmann detailed how Luther challenged the Catholic Church of his time, Castro said he often felt like Luther must have felt. The Cuban president said he admires the manner in which Protestants pray. "I like how Protestants pray, it's a very direct way of communicating with God," Castro said.
In regard to Pinochet's pending extradition to Spain, Castro, who is reportedly worried about the legal precedent the case may set, said the dictator's arrest was "morally fair but juridically questionable". He said Pinochet "should be punished, but inside Chile".
Raiser said that whatever happens next in the Pinochet case, "the essential political point has been made. . . Pinochet has to be held accountable. Impunity cannot be tolerated. Whether Pinochet ends up being tried or not, that point has already been made."
Cuba is the first stop on the delegation's four-nation swing through the region. Also included in the itinerary are Haiti and Honduras, where Castro said the group would find Cuban medical personnel at work serving the poor. Castro described how Cuba trains its physicians, usually sending them abroad for a period of service. "In the exercise of solidarity, they become more compassionate," Castro said.
The Cuban leader said it was unlikely that other nations could do the same. "If the United States wanted to send 2,000 doctors to Central America, it couldn't do it, even if it offered to pay each of them $100,000 a year, because they wouldn't be willing to go to remote communities without electricity and plumbing in order to serve the poor. But we could put together that number of doctors in three days," Castro declared. "With solidarity, we can do great things."
Raiser told Castro that the churches in the ecumenical movement "share a concern for justice that has a lot in common with the life and struggle of the Cuban people."
Also present in the meeting were leaders of several Cuban Protestant churches, and Castro quizzed them about the historical and theological differences between denominations.
The group explained to Castro how churches have been working together in peacemaking activities in several Latin American nations, including Guatemala and Colombia.
"The Gospel at the centre of the churches' life is a Gospel of love and peace," Raiser told Castro. "Our central task as churches today is to translate the Gospel into actions in the middle of the communities where we live."
The meeting with the Cuban president came on the third day of a four-day visit here. Earlier on 12 October the delegation met with Havana's Roman Catholic archbishop, Jaime Ortega, a frequent critic of government policies.
Ortega said that while outright discrimination against the Catholic Church was a thing of the past, much of the good feelings generated by the visit to Cuba last year by Pope John Paul II has dissipated. "The government didn't know how to take advantage of the hope left by the pope's visit," Ortega declared.
Ortega said that while Cuba's Communist leaders ordered an end to harassment of the church, "at times those orders have to be carried out by local officials who still suffer from very narrow mental frameworks".
The Cuban government was officially atheist until 1992, when Castro's Communist Party declared Cuba a secular state and dropped the requirement that party members profess atheism. Ortega told the Protestant group that atheism had never penetrated very far into the Cuban spirit. "Atheism never made big inroads into the Cuban people," Ortega said. "One of our defects as Cubans is that we don't take things seriously, and I don't believe we ever took atheism very seriously."
The ecumenical delegation leaves Cuba for Haiti on October 14. Accompanying Raiser and Altmann are Dr Elisabeth Raiser, the general secretary's wife and a prominent church activist; Geneviève Jacques, a member of the International Relations team of the WCC; and Marta Palma, a member of the WCC team on Regional Relations and Ecumenical Sharing.
Contact: Kristine Greenaway, director of WCC Communication
The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches, now 337, in more than 100 countries in all continents from virtually all Christian traditions. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member church but works cooperatively with the WCC. The highest governing body is the assembly, which meets approximately every seven years. The WCC was formally inaugurated in 1948 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Its staff is headed by general secretary Konrad Raiser from the Evangelical Church in Germany.