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Ahead of Pope’s Visit, Church Leaders From Cuba and Miami Meet

MIAMI -- Creating a space for dialogue between Cubans on the island and those in exile, as well as the topics of reconciliation and achieving a peaceful transition in Cuba were some of the issues discussed at a symposium that included church leaders and experts from Cuba and Miami held Monday at Florida International University.

“The church in Cuba wants - I believe - a soft landing, ‘un aterrizaje suave’, to any future transition,” Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski said during the event organized by the Cuban Research Institute. He said that is what the church is working for because the alternative would be “chaos, more violence, more death, more rancor, etc.”

To help build a peaceful transition, Bibi Hidalgo co-founded “En Comunión” or “In Communion,” - an initiative which began in 2002 involving church leaders in Miami, to create a space for Cubans in the U.S. and on the island to dialogue and develop a relationship that has been largely fragmented for decades.

As a Cuban-American raised in Miami, Hidalgo said it was a life changing moment when Pope John Paul II announced in 1997 that he would travel to Cuba. “It was because of the Pope’s visit that there was this space for people to come out and talk more openly. That’s when I thought, how can we build on that,” Hidalgo told NBC News.

Pope Francis has created a new opening since he announced plans to visit Cuba later this month, according to Hidalgo. “En Comunión” hopes his visit will further build on the relationship between Cuban exiles and those on the island.

Sister Ondina Cortés of Saint Thomas University in Miami said reconciliation has been an important part of the Cuban church for quite some time.

“The emphasis of reconciliation work needs to be forward looking - not backward looking. What we can do together is fight off differences for the future of Cuba,” she told the audience.

Father Jose Conrado Rodríguez, who traveled from the Santísima Trinidad Parish in Cuba for the event, stressed that many communities on the island do not have a temple. He said that during Pope Francis’s trip to Cuba, the first Latin American Pope will meet with those who don’t have a parish at the National Sanctuary of Our Lady of Charity, Cuba’s patron saint.

Rodríguez told NBC News the biggest obstacle he faces is “suspicion about the work he does and the lack of understanding among people who have a wrong vision about what the Church does.” He said authorities always see his work as “suspicious.”

Dagoberto Valdés, director of the magazine Convivencia in the province of Pinar del Río also traveled from the island and emphasized the obstacles that civil society faces on a daily basis.

Questions from the audience included criticism of the Catholic church’s relationship with dissidents in Cuba. Father Conrado said “perhaps we don’t know everything the church says or does.”

Other panelists compared the Church in Cuba to the Church during dictatorships in other Latin American countries such as Argentina. The widespread practice of being devout to more than one religion in Cuba was also discussed.

Sister Cortés said that this dialogue is necessary because "reconnection is a key ingredient to the healing process."

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