Despite local media reports, Bishop Emilio Aranguren of Holguin, Cuba has denied that any violence was used against a group of protesters who occupied the Cathedral of St. Isidore last week.

On March 13, some 17 dissidents protested in the cathedral, while 20 others occupied the Church of St. Jerome in the city of Las Tunas, which is also in the Diocese of Holguin.

The state-run media in Cuba alleged that Bishop Aranguren used violence to force them out of the cathedral and that he even slapped one protestor as he was attempting to make a call on his cell phone.

“There were some words exchanged because the young man who was in the first pew in front of me took out his cell phone, and I told him to put it away because cell phones are not allowed in the church, either for phone calls or for taking pictures,” the bishop said.

He said that during the exchange, the man “told me I was not a pastor, and I raised my voice and energetically made a gesture to convey that he was offending me.”

“Various members of the group told him to be quiet. I did not slap him at any time, nor did I make any gesture that caused him to drop his cell phone,” the bishop said.

Within the last week, other protestors had occupied Minor Basilica of Our Lady of Charity in Havana and the Cathedral of Pinar del Rio in an apparent effort to demand an audience with Pope Benedict during his March 25-29 visit to the country.

Spokesman for the Archdiocese of Havana, Orlando Marquez, called the incidents an “organized strategy by various groups in different regions of the country” aimed at “creating difficult situations” as the Pope's visit approaches.

Although local Church authorities have a history of support and empathy for other groups of political dissidents in the country, Marquez called the recent protests “illegitimate” and “irresponsible.”

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