HAVANA—A decision by Cuba's Roman Catholic cardinal to call police in to remove dissidents occupying a church has sparked an uncomfortable debate about the institution's role on this Communist-run island at the worst possible moment: just 10 days ahead of a high-profile visit by Pope Benedict XVI.

Cuban opposition leaders who had kept their distance from the 13 little-known protesters holed up in the Church of Charity since Tuesday nonetheless denounced the move by Cardinal Jaime Ortega to oust them, saying Friday it was a black mark for a church that ought to protect human and political rights.

The criticism was joined by human rights officials and some exiles, though others acknowledged the dissidents put church leaders in a tough spot. Religious experts noted the eviction of the occupiers was not unprecedented, with police called in just last month to remove protesters from a camp outside St. Paul's cathedral in London, and Occupy Wall Street protesters removed from a church in New York last year.

The 13 Cuban dissidents were removed from the church in Central Havana at 9:30 p.m. Thursday by some 60 unarmed officers, who took them to a nearby police station, fingerprinted them and issued a formal warning before sending them home. The church said in a statement that it had secured a promise from the government not to prosecute the dissidents for their action.

The group initially demanded an audience with the pope during his March 26-28 visit, then asked that he mediate a list of demands on their behalf, including establishing a transitional government to end a half-century of Communist rule under Fidel and Raul Castro.

The church said the dissidents were evicted peacefully in an operation that took less than 10 minutes, an account verified by local residents interviewed by The Associated Press on Friday, but vehemently disputed by at least one occupier.

"The church is lying, " Fred Calderon said in a telephone interview. "It wasn't peaceful. They removed us with violence and shoving."

The Vatican stood by Ortega in a terse statement from Rome.

"We approved of the position of the cardinal and the diocese," said Rev. Federico Lombardi, a spokesman for the Holy See. "I have nothing else to add."

Back in Cuba, many dissidents who had questioned their colleagues' tactics expressed outrage at Ortega's decision, as well as charges by the dissidents that they were denied food for nearly 48 hours.

Well-known blogger Yoani Sanchez tweeted that it was "an embarrassing night" for the church. Elizardo Sanchez, a de facto spokesman for the dissidents and proponent of human rights who is no relation to Yoani, said he was stunned by the cardinal's decision: "I thought they were going to look for other alternatives, like dialogue or mediation."

Ortega's role has been the subject of intense debate in Cuba. Some praise the 75-year-old cardinal for carving out a space for the church in a Communist country that in the past was openly hostile, and for personally mediating with President Castro in 2010 to secure the release of dozens of political prisoners.

Others say Ortega is passive and has grown too close to the government, which considers the dissidents mercenaries and common criminals paid by Washington to stir up trouble. The government had no comment on the raid, but pro-government blogs blamed the dissidents and accused exiles of having a hand in the occupation.

In Miami, filmmaker and political commentator Joe Cardona said the church's decision to call the police was "horrific but not surprising."

"People in Cuba are turning to the church for protection, and the church is turning its back on them because it puts a damper on the pope's visit," said Cardona, a Cuban-American who opposes the U.S. economic embargo on the island.

Pepe Hernandez, head of the Cuban American National Foundation and a decades-long opponent of the Cuban government, said the church handled the standoff poorly, but he was more understanding of the bind Catholic officials were in. 

"Historically the church, and specifically the Catholic Church, has been a refuge and asylum for those who have been persecuted throughout history. That space, which is a sacred space, should be reserved for that, and for those who come to be close to their faith," he said. If not, he warned, whoever has a demand is going to take over a church and stay there.

The Rev. Thomas Moore, senior fellow at Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, said that while it is always better to avoid calling the police, the church does not look kindly on people who try to occupy sacred ground.

"The demonstrators were doing two things: they were using the church to make a political statement, but also they were trying to force the pope to speak to them," he said. "And I think that was really two strikes against them, trying to tell the pope what to do."

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Associated Press reporters Daniela Petroff in Rome, Laura Wides-Munoz in Miami and Andrea Rodriguez and Anne-Marie Garcia in Havana contributed to this report.

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