Many mainline church officials in the U.S. have long had a soft spot for Cuba's dictator. But Fidel Castro's concerns about Global Warming perhaps will bring them even closer together.
"It took nature 350 million years to create hydrocarbons, and it's taken man only a few generations" to compromise the ozone layer significantly, Castro told an agreeing U.S. Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold.
Griswold was in Havana to preach at an Ash Wednesday service last month.
"When you and I met all those years ago, there was much talk about nuclear weapons, but nobody spoke about the environment," Castro said, referring to Griswold's having spotted the then young Marxist revolutionary at Harvard over 46 years ago.
According to an Episcopal News Service report, Castro said environmental care is among the core "values we should try to carry."
Castro may have gotten the idea of talking green with sympathetic church officials when the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople visited Havana early in 2004. Ostensibly, Castro admired Patriarch Bartholomew, sometimes known as the "Green Patriarch," because of his environmental concerns and opposition to the Iraq War.
During a Havana press conference, with Castro listening attentively, the Patriarch applauded Cuba's "protection of the environment." His Holiness thanked Cuban leaders for making their country an environmental example for the world.
Castro's Deputy Minister for Science, Technology and the Environment warmly responded: "We feel reassured by the fact that there are people like the Patriarch, who share our preoccupation for the legacy of future generations."
The Cuban deputy minister dutifully alleged that "patterns of consumption in the developed countries are contributing to the planet's destruction," according to one report, claiming that Cuba is developing an "environment friendly model based on sustainable methods."
Bartholomew was also helpfully presented by the Cuban government with a video on environmental issues.
Reported one fawning United Methodist Church observer: "I discovered that, only months earlier, Fidel Castro had spoken to the nation about his environmental concerns, which he shares with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. It didn't fit my image of him."
The routine, after over 40 years, has become old. Western liberals visit Havana and are charmed by the flamboyant Latin dictator, who has oppressed and impoverished millions, but who invariably shares the spiritual concerns of his visitors.
The Methodist official cited above, the Rev. Steve Horswill-Johnston, heads his denomination's "Igniting Ministry" television ad campaign. He was part of a U.S. National Council of Churches (NCC) delegation that attended Patriarch Bartholomew's dedication of a Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Havana.
"In his green military uniform, Castro appeared to be in good health and genuinely liked by the people," Horswill-Johnston enthused in a United Methodist News Service commentary.
"His entrance was in stark contrast to how I've experienced U.S. president's arrival at a similar event, when everyone was well-searched and rows of metal detectors stood outside. Not security checks were present here as people walked up and took photographs as they wished."
Another NCC delegation member was Episcopal Church ecumenical officer Bishop C. Christopher Epting, who sympathetically articulated the fears he detected on the streets of Havana.
"The most surprising and sobering thing I heard," Bishop Epting shared with the Episcopal News Service, "Was the fear expressed by so many in Cuba that the United States may soon stage an Iraq-style , pre-emptive invasion of Cuba as a next step on the war on terror, or indeed to force 'regime change.'"
Seemingly, Epting found this supposedly widespread concern very understandable. "I believe it is a serious and disturbing consequence of current U.S. foreign policy."
Surely by sheer coincidence, Cubans shared the same talking points with Rev. Horswill-Johnston. "One Cuban told me his fear of Cuba's being on President Bush's 'Axis of Evil' list," the Methodist minister recounted. "I feel that your president may look to Cuba next before the election," he was somberly instructed. Apparently befuddled, the Methodist media official asked what on earth the Cuban meant. "Afghanistan-Iraq-Iran-North Korea-Cuba," the Cuban replied ominously, "referring to the recent U.S. history of pre-emptive war."
Horswill-Johnston reported that Cubans were very appreciative of NCC efforts to "normalize" relations with Cuba and life the embargo. "Almost every discussion included the expressed wish of lifting the embargo, he reported, "Expressed as an almost-constant breath prayer to God. I've joined in the prayer since my return."
Validating the Methodist's report, the Episcopal News Service quoted an Episcopal Church official in Cuba, who insisted that "in practical terms, the church in Cuba today suffers more from the economic hardships imposed on the country by the U.S. embargo than from any pressure from the Castro government."
Thoughtfully, the NCC delegation expressed concern during its Havana visit about 75 Cuban dissidents imprisoned in a 2003 crack-down on Castro opponents. "It's an internal matter," an NCC official told the Associated Press. But, he suggested, "A gesture of compassion could help" the NCC's campaign to end the U.S. trade embargo.
"When the sentences were given, it created a very negative reaction in public opinion," the NCC official explained. "That makes more difficult the work towards eliminating the blockade and the travel restrictions," he opined, revealing the NCC priorities.
Wanting to appear even-handed, the NCC listened to Cuban concerns about the imprisoned "Cuban Five," who are Castro agents arrested by the FBI for seeking to infiltrate Cuban exile groups in Miami. "These men are seen as national heroes by Cubans and celebrated on billboards across Havana," the Episcopal News Service noted. The sentences of the "Cuban Five" and of the anti-Castro dissidents were both "excessive," the NCC delegation told the Cubans.
Visiting U.S. church officials prefer to discuss the U.S. embargo as the primary cause of Cuban suffering, of course. In February of this year, Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Griswold told Cuban: "I have been saddened to see the suffering caused by the policies of my country's government." His denomination "strongly opposes the blockade against Cuba. In the four decades of its existence, the blockade has done little except exacerbate the suffering of the Cuban people. Reconciliation must begin, and people of faith must lead the way."
The Episcopal Church, like nearly all liberal-led mainline Protestant denominations in the U.S., has called for the full removal of U.S. trade sanctions against Castro's Cuba. These churches typically say little to nothing about human rights in Cuba or admit to Marxism's role in Cuba's impoverishment. "Its socialist organization and economy are traditionally feared by U.S. capitalists," the Methodist Rev. Horswill- Johnston commented revealingly.
Well knowing the friendly sentiments of left-leaning U.S. churchmen, Castro met for three hours with Bishop Griswold. "Cuba is the only country in the world where an American flag has never been burned," Castro told him, with his usual veracity. "There is no hatred here... I trust the American people," Castro said through an interpreter. "We understand that the blockade is the creation of government, not the people of the United States."
Griswold suggested that Castro should tolerate dissent in Cuba, just as Griswold's opposition to U.S. sanctions in tolerated in his country. Castro's response was not reported.
"I studied in a religious school," Castro told the bishop. "I remember studying the Apocalypse. Do you think the Apocalypse could be close to us now?"
"I believe we create our own apocalypses," Griswold replied, perhaps with Global Warming in mind. He also told Castro he was "embarrassed" by the U.S. Interests Section building in Havana. Its electronic billboard broadcasts messages critical of the Castro government, which prompted the Cubans to obscure the building with flags.
"I'm very grateful," Castro replied to Griswold, no doubt sincerely. He had much to be grateful for, to Griswold, and to years of other helpful visiting U.S. and Western prelates.
Mark D. Tooley directs the United Methodist committee at the Institute on Religion and Democracy.
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