Police in Cuba have arrested dozens of dissidents ahead of a rare visit by Pope Benedict XVI to the Communist island nation next week, media reports citing activists said late on Sunday.
Most of those detained were members of a group of female relatives of imprisoned dissidents, known as the 'Ladies in White.' They were arrested while participating in their weekly silent protest march held in capital Havana.
The 'Ladies in White' group has been holding silent protests in Havana every Sunday, demanding the release of political prisoners. The Cuban government has alleged in the past that the dissident movement was part of a U.S. conspiracy aimed at undermining the Communist regime. It also accuses the 'Ladies in White' members of being agents of the U.S. government.
But the Cuban authorities had agreed recently to let the group resume their peaceful Sunday marches in Havana in exchange for assurances that the women would not expand their activities, following a Church-mediated agreement reached with the group.
The latest development comes ahead of a scheduled visit by Benedict XVI to Cuba next week. It would be the second visit by a Pope to the Communist State, after the current Pontiff's predecessor John Paul had a historic trip in 1998.
During the first papal visit to the Caribbean country, Pope John Paul II had called on "Cuba to open to the world, and the world to open to Cuba" while conducting a holy mass in the famous Revolution Square in Havana.
Earlier, the Cuban government had released some 52 dissidents it had agreed to free last July under a deal brokered by the Catholic Church. The decision to free them was announced after President Raul Castro held a meeting with Church leaders in Havana. It was the first meeting in five years the head of the Bishops' Conference had with a Cuban President.
Further, the government released some 2,900 prisoners, including five dissents and 86 foreigners convicted of committing crimes in Cuba, in December under an amnesty to mark the New Year as well as the Papal visit.
Prior to these developments, relations between the government and the Vatican remained strained for decades following the revolution that overthrew dictator Fulgencia Batista in 1959 and the establishment of a Communist regime in the country.
Relations improved in the early 1990s after references to atheism was removed from the Constitution and believers of all faiths were allowed to join the Communist party. Relations warmed further with the historic Cuban visit of Pope John Paul in 1998.
To date, Cuba under Castro brothers -- Fidel and Raul -- has survived more than four decades of U.S. sanctions. Fidel Castro ceded power to his brother Raul in February 2008, following an emergency stomach surgery in July 2006, and has made very few public appearances since then.
by RTT Staff Writer
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