Alan Gross: Castro's prisoner
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    Cuban leader reaches out to religion amid tense times

    Posted on Monday, 12.06.10
    Cuban leader reaches out to religion amid tense times

    Cuban ruler Raúl participated in a Hanukkah ceremony with the Jewish community in , a first for him and an indication of his communist government’s efforts to reach out to religious institutions on the island.

    One analyst described the visit Sunday to the Shalom synagogue in Havana as part of a Castro effort to project “a bit of normalcy” at a time of rising tensions due to the rocky and coming layoffs of a half-million public workers.

    Wearing a dark suit and a yarmulke, Castro lit the first candle of a menorah to start the eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem in the second century BCE.

    But he made no public mention of , a Jewish-American subcontractor for the U.S. government jailed for the past year in Havana for delivering satellite communications equipment to Jewish groups on the island.

    The Communist Party’s Granma newspaper devoted about one-third of its front page Monday to a report on the Hanukkah visit, underlining its importance for the government.

    It was a marked contrast to the way religious institutions were once treated by Havana.

    The Cuban government declared itself officially atheist in 1962 — a designation that remained until the early 1990s — and in 1969, it removed Christmas from its official calendar of holidays because it said it was interfering with the goal of reaching a record sugar harvest.

    Castro’s synagogue visit appeared to be part of a recent outreach effort, said Enrique López Oliva, a Havana academic who specializes in religious issues.

    “This is part of an overall policy trying to show a growing improvement in the relations between the government of Cuba and the Cuban religious institutions,” he said.

    This year, for example, Castro has met several times with Cardinal Jaime Ortega, archbishop of Havana, and took part in the Nov. 3 inauguration of an addition to the San Carlos and San Ambrosio seminary in Havana — the first Catholic construction in Cuba since the early 1960s.

    His meetings with Ortega led to a Cuban promise to free the last 52 dissidents still in jail from a group of rounded up during a crackdown in 2003. Forty-one have been released and sent into in , and 11 remain in prison.

    Such efforts are designed to project “a bit of normalcy at a time there’s severe tension” because of Castro’s plans to slash state subsidies and lay off 500,000 public employees, López Oliva said by telephone from Havana.

    During his synagogue visit, Castro declared, “We feel extremely happy and proud participating in this festivity with you, and I hope to be back to learn more about the Hebrew Community in Cuba and the fabulous stories of the Hebrew people.”

    The 79-year-old Castro also told the congregation that he was “in good health” and praised the nationwide debate launched by the Communist Party to discuss the many reforms he has announced to overcome a deep economic crisis, Granma reported.

    “That is what we want to defend: permanent differences in all ideas, which, in my modest experience, is where the best solutions come from,” other Cuban news media reports quoted Castro as saying.

    But neither the Granma story nor a Cuban television report on the ceremony mentioned , who on Dec. 3 marked one year in jail. The Potomac, Md., subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development has not been officially charged.

    U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has urged Cuba to release Gross on humanitarian grounds, and asked Jewish-American organizations to lobby the Castro government. Cuban Jewish community leaders have denied knowing Gross.

    Cuba’s Jewish community, once estimated at more than 15,000, is now believed to have about 1,500 members, including some who converted or became members through marriage.

    The number of Cuban Jews has been growing slowly in recent years, López Oliva noted, because members have the opportunity to emigrate to Israel and receive assistance from Jewish communities abroad.

    Castro was welcomed to the ceremony by Adela Dworin, of the Cuban Hebrew Community Foundation, who gave him a copy of the first three books of the Bible. The program noted that former Cuban leader had participated in a Hanukkah ceremony in Havana in 1998.

    Although Cuba’s foreign policy has long and strongly favored the Palestinian side of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Fidel Castro recently drew praise from Israeli leaders by disagreeing with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s comments denying the Holocaust.

    “I don’t think anyone has been slandered more than the Jews,” he said during a September interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, a national correspondent for The Atlantic, adding that Jews “were expelled from their land, persecuted and mistreated all over the world.”