HAVANA — Pope John Paul II will continue his dialogue with Fidel Castro in hopes of fostering the democratization of Cuba despite the recent execution of three hijackers and the jailing of scores of dissidents.

“The Holy Father is convinced that dialogue must continue to contribute to the democratization of Cuba,” Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano told reporters April 30.

Much of the recent repression in Cuba has been directed toward members of a pro-democracy group enjoying the support of many Catholics.

Several Cuban independent journalists and Catholic lay leaders were awakened March 17 by Castro's political police and, without any explanations, taken to police stations.

That morning marked the largest wave of arrests of Cuban dissidents in more than 20 years. Almost 80 were subjected to summary trials behind closed doors and, by April 7, sentenced to between 15 and 27 years in prison.

Owning “books contrary to the socioeconomic process,” old computers or video cameras; meeting with U.S. diplomats in hotels; and getting access to the Internet for free at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana were some of the charges the prosecution brought forward during the trials.

“These arrests are the most intense wave of repression in the history of Cuba,” said human-rights activist Elizardo S·nchez, one of the few dissi dent leaders who remain free. “Rarely has Latin America seen so many people accused for crimes of opinion.”

In fact, among the convicted are well-known figures of the Cuban democratic opposition such as Raúl Rivero, director of the alternative news agency Cuba Press, and Martha Beatriz Roque, founder of the Assembly for the Promotion of Civil Society.

“It is true for the Pope as for other free peoples of the world [that] the [Cuban government's] latest decisions were disappointing,” Cardinal Sodano said. But he said the Vatican, “through our excellent nuncio in Cuba, Archbishop Luis Robles DÌaz, and through the bishops and Cardinal Jaime Ortega, archbishop of Havana, [we] will continue with that dialogue.”

“In life,” he continued, “you always have to provide people with golden bridges to come out of the world in which they are enclosed.”

Castro has stood by his actions, defending the executions and harsh sentences. At a May 1 rally in Havana, he charged that President Bush is committed to eliminating him. Cuba's recent crackdown against dissidents is “legitimate defense” against the United States, which is trying to subvert his government, Castro said.

But Cardinal Sodano said he and the Pope both have “great hope” that Castro “may lead the [Cuban] people toward new democratic goals, maintaining the achievements of the last decades.”

“This is of course the hope we all have,” a source within the Cuban episcopate told the Register on condition of anonymity. “But he [Castro] is doing everything possible to convince the Cuban people that there will be no change, at least not a peaceful one, while he is alive.”

Most of the imprisoned dissidents are key grass-roots supporters of the Varela Project, a public appeal for a popular referendum to introduce democratic reform in Cuba.

The project, which presented some 11,000 signatures to the Cuban Parliamentary Assembly last year, has been promoted mostly by Catholic groups, particularly the Movimiento Cristiano LiberaciÛn (Christian Liberation Movement), directed by Oswaldo Pay· SardiÒas. It is named after Father Felix Varela, a 19th-century priest who advocated Cuban independence from Spain.

Payá was spared because of his international fame — he is currently a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize — but approximately 20 of his key collaborators have been sentenced, including secretary of the Christian Liberation Movement JosÈ Daniel Ferrer Garcia, 32, the father of two.

“This is obviously a blow aimed directly at the Varela Project and to any other initiative fostering a peaceful but bold transition to democracy in Cuba,” Payá said at a press conference in which he provided the long list of Varela Project's supporters sentenced by the government.

According to Cuban independent journalist Claudia Marquez Linares, “The blow the government has struck against the peaceful opposition within the island shows the dissidents were doing a good job.”

Marquez, wife of a journalist sentenced to 18 years in prison, believes that to accuse dissidents of subverting the established order “demonstrates how feeble the administration's hold on power really is.”

“Fidel Castro is scared. At least he is alarmed,” said Pablo Alfonso, one of the most knowledgeable commentators on Cuban issues and a columnist of the Miami-based Nuevo Herald.

“Why so many Catholics among the arrested? Because most of the dissident initiatives such as the Varela Project have been growing around lay Christian groups,” he told the Register.

Probably because of this fact, the increasingly outspoken Catholic Church in Cuba decided not to remain silent.

First, the lay diocesan council of the Pinar del Rio Diocese issued the unusual public criticism of government officials April 7.

The document said the government's campaign against dissent was creating a climate of fear in Cuba and voiced its “concern for the direction that the nation might take.”

The statement also protested the fact that the dissidents had merely voiced their political opinions, thus “such severe sanctions should never have been applied to anyone who was acting peacefully,” especially considering “the critical conditions of subsistence” in Cuba.

Five days later, the Permanent Council of the Cuban Conference of Catholic Bishops released a statement condemning the government's decision to execute three dissidents who hijacked a ferry with the intention of sailing to the United States.

After learning of the April 11 execution, “the bishops of Cuba, in full agreement with Pope John Paul II's magisterium, express once again our rejection of the death penalty,” the document said.

“No one has the right to put others’ lives in danger, as the hijackers did, but at the same time no one should decide to apply death to other persons as a remedy for their crimes, especially when it takes place after an extremely brief trial,” the bishops added.

The document also called the long jail terms imposed on the political dissidents “a matter of deep concern.”

The official response of the Cuban government was aired by Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe PÈrez Roque, who said the summary trials and harsh sentences were justified because the main U.S. diplomat in Cuba, James Cason, was leading a plan to “undermine Cuba's revolution.”

“These excuses are nonsense,” Alfonso said. “The government is just getting paranoid over a growing, organized dissident movement. Castro is just thinking of what will happen with such a movement in four years, when he will turn 80.”

The reaction of the Catholic Church has gone beyond Cuba, even affecting the relationship between the Vatican and the Castro regime.

In fact, on April 28, after several leaders of the Cuban exile community called for the intervention of Pope John Paul II, the Vatican made public that the Holy Father had already urged Castro to grant clemency to dissidents in a letter written on Palm Sunday, April 13.

The letter, signed by Cardinal Sodano, spoke of the Holy Father's distress “upon learning of the severe sentences imposed recently on numerous Cuban citizens and, also, for some sentences of capital punishment.”

The Pope's message requested that Castro “give consideration to a significant gesture of clemency to the condemned, with the certainty that such an act would contribute to creating a climate of greater civil liberty for the benefit of the beloved Cuban people.”

“I am sure that you also share with me the conviction that only a sincere and constructive interaction between citizens and civil authorities can guarantee the development of a modern and democratic state in an ever more united and fraternal Cuba,” the letter also said.

Nevertheless, other Vatican voices have been less diplomatic in voicing their criticism of Castro.

The Vatican's missionary news agency, Fides, issued an editorial April 29 stating that they “must say that we hoped for a change, we hoped that ‘El Máximo’ [a title referring to Fidel Castro] would have the courage to open Cuba to democracy.”

“We hoped and we were wrong, holding our breath for something to happen,” the editorial continued. “In this way perhaps we gave the [Cuban] regime the impression that its leader was covered by our silence ... but it was not a covering, it was only charity, it was offering him a chance to walk toward the rediscovery of his dignity.

“But Fidel is using his fist against those demanding justice for the people. The closed fist of Fidel, full of the flies of rhetorical populism whose buzzing filled the gulags with corpses, continues to strike defenseless people.”

Alejandro Bermúdez is based in Lima, Peru.

(Catholic News Service contributed to this story)