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Cuban dissidents removed from church

By Patrick Oppmann, CNN
updated 9:23 AM EDT, Fri March 16, 2012

Havana (CNN) -- Thirteen Cubans who occupied a church in Havana in the hopes of meeting with the pope instead were escorted from the building late Thursday by police, the Havana Archdiocese said.

The group of self-described "dissidents" entered the Catholic church Tuesday and refused to leave until their demands were presented to Pope Benedict XVI, who is visiting Cuba at the end of the month.

After days of failed negotiation, archdiocese said in a news release, the church asked Cuban authorities to remove the group from the Our Lady of Charity Catholic church

"The 13 occupiers were invited to leave the church and did not put up any resistance," the release said.

The police who removed the group told church officials they were not armed and that after taking the occupiers to a police station would return them to their homes, the archdiocese said.

CNN Reporter moves to Cuba

Church officials asked police not to charge any members of the group with a crime.

Fred Calderon, a spokesman for the group, said all 13 people were released after spending several hours in police custody.

"It was quick and violent," Calderon told CNN Friday. "They took us from there like we were animals. I don't know what happens next."

Calderon said the group had hoped to have their requests for the release of political prisoners, greater access to the Internet and increased salaries for Cubans presented to the pope during his three-day visit later this month.

The group's action divided Cuba's dissident community, with some opposition figures saying the occupation showed a lack of respect to the pope. A church statement said the presence of the protesters prevented the clergy there from performing mass.

In a statement Thursday, the chairwoman of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee called on the pope to meet with critics of Cuba's government during his visit.

"It is my hope that Pope Benedict will show his support for the Cuban people by meeting with peaceful dissident groups, including those practicing their faith while bringing attention to human rights violations," Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said.

CNN's Catherine E. Shoichet and CNN en EspaƱol's Lucia Navarro contributed to this report.

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