VATICAN CITY, April 5 (CNS)--The Cuban government has used the case of Elian Gonzalez to mask a new campaign of repression against the Catholic Church, according to the Vatican missionary news agency, Fides.

The government has portrayed the church as a malicious ally of those trying to keep the 6-year-old Elian in the United States, Fides said in a report April 4.

The report, citing informed church sources in Havana, said the Cuban regime has quietly withdrawn permission for some church-sponsored events and increased its surveillance of others.

It said that as Cuban outrage has grown over the Elian case, the government has been trying to direct it more and more against the church.

One commercial on state TV took particular aim at U.S. Dominican Sister Jeanne O'Laughlin, president of Barry University and the nun who hosted a January meeting between Elian and his grandmothers in Miami Beach. O'Laughlin later said she was in favor of Elian remaining in the United States. The commercial depicted the nun as slowly being transformed into a computer image of a demon, Fides said.

It said Havana police have announced heavy fines for anyone publicly defending the nun's role in the case.

Cuban-born Elian has been in a custody battle between his Cuban father and Cuban-American relatives since Nov. 25, when he was found off the Florida coast after a boat carrying his mother, stepfather and other Cuban refugees sank. The mother and the stepfather did not survive.

Although Cardinal Jaime Ortega Alamino of Havana said in December that the boy should be reunited with his father in Cuba, the official media did not report that until 10 days afterward, Fides said. Cardinal Ortega later said that the Elian case was being used in Cuba to incite ``prejudices and dark feelings'' against the church.

Cuban authorities have made small concessions on church freedom since Pope John Paul II's visit there in 1998, but Fides said there were worrisome signs these freedoms were "disappearing, giving way to greater control" over the church's activities.

Last December, for example, Cuban authorities abruptly canceled a national youth meeting at a Marian shrine the day before the event. A jubilee-year youth procession was recently modified by authorities at the last minute, with increased security.

Meanwhile, a Cuban human rights group has reported that 600 dissidents have been arrested or temporarily detained since last November, the biggest such operation in the last decade.

Fides said the regime of Cuban President Fidel Castro fears that in the wake of the pope's visit, Cuban dissidents are having more frequent contact with the church, whose social doctrine is seen as protecting human rights and critical of the government. In late March, for example, 20 dissidents demonstrated with a day of fasting and prayer at the country's most famous Marian sanctuary, with the support of the local pastor.


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