From Havana to Baghdad

Reconciliation: the Chance for Salvation
The Primate of Cuba emphasizes over and over, “The reconciliation we need is above all among us Cubans, with our history”–in a country that is changing, albeit slowly and with great effort. “The Christian message has an overwhelming strength. This alone, ultimately, will renew the world”.

edited by Alver Metalli
E. Jaime Ortega y Alamino, Cardinal and Archbishop of Havana, is in Corsico, in the province of Milan, Italy. Thanks to the help of the parish priest, we have been given this exclusive interview. The cardinal has high praise for the film on Cuba presented at the international festival in San Sebastian, Spain. In his opinion, the ten stories that interweave in Suite Avana describe better than many articles the contemporary reality of the oldest surviving socialist system in the West. It is just that he would like to add an eleventh story, the one he tells Traces. “It is the story of a woman of the people whose faith is simple, who does not attend church regularly and does not have a great training in Christian doctrine. She is the mother of one of the three young men who were recently executed after being captured in a stolen car with which they hoped to reach the United States. This mother came to see me. She stood there, in front of me, looking me in the eye with great dignity. She had lost her son unexpectedly, in that way. Every so often the tears would pour down her face, quietly and reservedly, while she told me that she did not want to resign herself to living with a heart full of hate. I would never have dared ask her to; forgiveness cannot be imposed, nor can reconciliation. I should have been consoling her, but I was the one being consoled.”

Overcoming hatred, forgiving wrongs
It is easy to understand why “reconciliation” is an important word for Cardinal Ortega, a word that these days he uses frequently. “Let’s make it clear,” he says as a preface when we ask him to explain what it means to him, “I am not referring, first of all, to a political reconciliation, along the line of the mediation conducted by the Church in various countries of Central America.” He does not at all disapprove of what has happened in El Salvador and Guatemala, the political process that has led to the disarming of the guerrillas and their integration into civilian life. But he knows all too well that a similar process would have no chance in Cuba. “What I am talking about is something broad, serious, profound: a personal will to forgive wrongs, a capacity to overcome hatred, the hatred that is always a premise to violence and revenge. The reconciliation we need is above all among us Cubans, with our history.”
Pointing out that his words sound surreal in reference to his country only results in his confirming them again. “They are hard to accept, I know,” he acknowledges. “Many oppose the word firmness to the word reconciliation, thinking it produces greater results. But they are wrong.” He admits that the word reconciliation resonates through the documents of the Cuban Church and that the newspaper Granma contested it politely. “They asked us, ‘What reconciliation are you talking about?’. They rebuked us, ‘With whom are you asking us to be reconciled?’” Another recent memory surfaces, this time about the people who have left Cuba. “When I went to Miami, they told me not to use this word, that people would not understand; indeed, that it might even provoke adverse reactions. But I said it anyway, and what they feared did not happen.” The Cardinal’s voice becomes firmer, confidently emphasizing what follows. “We must use it, we must continue to speak of reconciliation. In Cuba, there are those who listen, who intuit what it means. There are even some who comment on it in a positive way, without irony, without a spirit of offense, without shutting themselves off.”
The Church as a divine reality
There are those who would like the Church to act as a political force, even among the Christians in Cuba, even among the Cardinal’s confreres. There are those who want the Church to take an opposition role and those, inside and outside of Cuba, who would like to see her take a stand in defense of the revolution. Jaime Ortega y Alamino knows this. “The Church, if she were like this, would be nothing but a factor among others in the political situation. Perhaps more influential than others, but still on the same level as others.” There is a legitimate struggle–“secular,” he specifies–which the Church cannot avoid. “This is aimed at showing that she is something else, that the Church is in the world not as a part of the civilian society, but as a divine reality. Whoever deals with the Church in a sociological key, as a simple factor in the political struggle, can always have the chance to understand that it is not this.” In Cardinal Ortega’s Church, there is room for everybody. “For the mother of an executed prisoner who does not want to live in hatred, just as for the wife of a Communist Party official who told me, painfully, that she has been going to Mass for ten years without being able to take Communion, because her husband does not want to get married in the Church.”
John Paul II’s historic trip comes to mind, and the enormous hopes–even too big–raised on that occasion. “There were those who exaggerated the political import of the visit, who thought the presence of the Pope would change the political history of Cuba,” Cardinal Ortega recalls. In fact, there have been no deep political changes. Those who watch Cuba by measuring its progress in terms of expansion of civil liberties and respect for human rights have reason for recrimination. This is the source of the pessimism of so many observers of the Cuban scene. Cardinal Ortega is frank to the point of irreverence. “I have never expected political change to happen; therefore, I do not share, either, the feelings of frustration of those who do not see their desires fulfilled. I knew the purpose of the Pope’s visit, I know the Cuban people, I know the Cuban government–it was not even considering a transformation of the type to which people allude.”
Little communities grow
In today’s Cuba, change is slow and only comes with effort, Cardinal Ortega acknowledges. “We ask for a priest here, a religious there… the Redemptorist Fathers have come back, a new community of religious has come… but the permits arrive slowly, slowly…”
And yet the situation is changing underneath, the Cardinal assures, citing a thorough investigation made all over the island by the Episcopal Conference. “We wanted to understand who was practicing, those who come to Mass, who take part in the sacraments, who even participate actively in the parish life or groups in the parish. We discovered that 60% is represented by Cubans who have become involved in the life of the Church for the first time. This is an outstanding figure.In the 1960s, 1970s, until the mid-1980s, there was a decrease in the number of practicing Catholics, due above all to the great amount of emigration. The situation has changed. We see growth. Many small communities that meet in houses are continuing to be formed; we counted more than 200 only in Havana. The Christian message, today more than ever, has an overwhelming strength. This alone, ultimately, will renew the world.”
Cardinal Ortega looks to the future with hope. “Cubans have a great imagination. People are capable of learning quickly. Cuba’s greatest wealth lies in our people.”
The Difficult Building of the Peace
In Iraq, people live in fear, because of looting, kidnapping, and terrorist attacks. Freedom seems a still-distant good. The situation of Christians before and after the fall of the regime, longing for freedom of conscience

edited by Paola Bergamini

Bishop Jean Sleiman has been Latin Bishop of Baghdad for almost three years. On September 25th, he was the protagonist of a meeting at the Cultural Center of Milan entitled “Iraq after the war. Educating to freedom for the difficult job of building the peace.” Following are excerpts from an interview with Bishop Sleiman by Roberto Fontolan, editor of, an Italian news digital TV channel.
Your Excellency, six months after the war, what is the situation in Iraq?
My country has been through a veritable earthquake. Today, the widespread feeling is fear. At the end of the war, a climate of alarm arose because of the looting, the terrorist attacks, the kidnappings. Guerrilla warfare has broken out, hindering the reconstruction of the country and the peace. The curfew takes effect at 11 p.m., but people are afraid and lock themselves in their houses when the sun goes down. To be sure, some steps forward have been made, like the creation of the Council of Government, but we have the impression that there is a political–and, in a certain sense, cultural–void. This void discourages and frightens people.

Is there a feeling of freedom from the Saddam regime?
Certainly. Freedom is a good for which every person longs. But it was a good with which Iraqis were hardly familiar. We have to learn to know it and use it correctly. Today it is difficult to enjoy freedom.
The war on Saddam was launched as part of the war on terrorism. But today the risk is precisely that Iraq is becoming terrorism’s new base…
Unfortunately, this is true, according also to declarations by American officials. Many fighters from Al Qaeda and other terrorist movements have entered our country mainly because the borders are not easily controlled. There is thus the risk that Iraq may become a refuge for terrorists of every type.

It is said that there are about 600,000 Christians in Iraq, out of a total population of maybe 20 million; thus we are talking about a group that is significantly in the minority. What is your situation?
Now the figure that is used is 5% of the population, and so we might be more than that. It is impossible to know, since the last census was taken many years ago. Four different Churches coexist in Iraq: the Chaldean Church, which is the majority, the Syrian Catholic, the Greek Catholic, and the Latin Churches. These are very ancient and deeply rooted communities, but in recent years there is no one who has not thought about leaving the country, especially among the young people.

The Church has been accused of supporting the Saddam regime and thus of having enjoyed a certain amount of protection…
I really would not say that. The Churches were and are a minority and so did not represent a danger for the regime. In this sense, there were never clashes between the Christians and the regime. Another thing altogether is freedom of conscience.

In what sense?
In Islamic countries, freedom of conscience does not exist. In other words, freedom to choose one’s religion, the faith in which to believe, does not exist. More precisely, a Christian can become a Muslim, but not vice-versa. There does exist freedom of worship, in the sense that it is permitted to carry out religious practices inside the church, whereas any outside activity is forbidden. Worship is recognized and respected inside, not outside. This means that any form of proselytism is forbidden, except that in the schools, some teachers have urged Catholic students to convert to Islam, or worse, some students have been beaten because they did not embrace the Muslim faith. In some countries, Saudi Arabia for instance, even the freedom of worship is forbidden.

Is it possible to speak of greater freedom for Christians now?
In the uncertain climate in which we live, we Catholic bishops, along with the Orthodox ones, have issued a declaration calling for freedom of conscience for everyone, a fundamental factor for reconstruction. Unfortunately, today many Christians try by all means to escape because they are tired of a situation that sometimes is very heavy. They often do not even know where to go. But this exhaustion has to be fought. The Christian presence is a wealth for the Middle East.  We can resist if we rediscover our missionary identity. It is not a question of proselytism, but of sharing a life and demonstrating that certain values can help others, too. Christians must be conscious of this.