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March 27, 2012

Pope Benedict Meets With Fidel Castro in Cuba

Pope Benedict has met with Cuba's former leader and revolutionary icon Fidel Castro, shortly the pontiff called for greater religious freedom on the island.

A Vatican spokesman said the meeting Wednesday occurred after the pope's outdoor mass in Havana's Revolution Plaza. The mass capped his first papal visit to Cuba.

On Wednesday morning, tens of thousands of Cubans filled the plaza that marks the island's communist revolution, with some holding umbrellas to shield themselves from the blazing sun.

A VOA reporter on the scene quoted some in the crowd as saying they thought it was great that Pope Benedict was in Cuba, but they do not expect his visit will have any effect on the country's political system.

The pope used his homily to praise the steps taken in Cuba to improve religious freedom, but he said more needs to be done.  He said the world and Cuba need to change by choosing "the way of love, sowing reconciliation and fraternity," and seeking truth.



Religion and politics

The U.S. State Department said it asked the pope to raise with Cuban officials the case of U.S. contractor Alan Gross, who is serving a 15-year prison sentence in Cuba after being convicted of crimes against the communist state.

A department spokeswoman said the request was made to the Vatican and through its diplomatic mission in Washington before Benedict arrived in Cuba on Monday.

Earlier Wednesday, a Vatican spokesman said the pope made a "humanitarian request" of Cuban President Raul Castro, but did not say if specific cases of political prisoners were discussed.

The spokesman said Pope Benedict also asked Mr. Castro to officially designate Good Friday, the day Christians observe the death of Jesus, as a national holiday.  

On Tuesday, the pontiff briefly met with Raul Castro, Fidel's younger brother and successor.  

Pope Benedict went to Cuba on a mission to boost the Church's influence and encourage Cubans to seek political change in order to build a "renewed and open society."

But Vice President Marino Murillo said Tuesday "there will not be political reform" in Cuba.

The pope's visit comes 14 years after his predecessor, John Paul, made the first papal visit to the communist-run island. The Roman Catholic Church has since grown to become the most influential institution next to the government.  Cuba was officially an atheist state from 1959 until a constitutional change in 1992 abolished atheism as the state creed and called for separation of church and state.  At that time, the Communist Party also lifted its ban on members with religious beliefs.

Cuba is the last stop on the pontiff's five-day Latin American trip that began last week in Mexico.

Some information for this report was provided by AFP and Reuters.