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Pope Leads Mass in Honor of Cuban Icon

People attend a mass celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI in Antonio Maceo square in Santiago, Cuba, March 26, 2012.

Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Santiago, Cuba, Monday, and led a Mass in honor of a national religious icon that is venerated by both Roman Catholics and followers of Afro-Cuban traditions.

The pope led hundreds of thousands in prayer in Santiago and gave his homily in a German-accented Spanish.

The pope stood on a platform that was erected against the stark backdrop of a Cuban independence monument that consists of 23 giant rusted spikes.

In an apparent allusion to the decade and a half in which Cuba was officially an athiest state, he said that “when God is put aside, the world becomes an inhospitable place for man.”

“It is touching to see how God not only respects human freedom, he almost seems to require it," the pope said.

The pope spoke from a platform where the golden figurine of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, was encased in a plexiglass box. The Mass was a celebration of the discovery of the statue 400 years ago by two brothers and a slave boy.

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Benedict said he was “deeply touched” by the outpouring of fervor when the statue was recently taken on an unprecedented tour of this communist country.

But the pontiff neglected to mention that the icon is simultaneously identified as the goddess Oshun in a syncretistic Afro-Cuban worship known as Santeria that is widely followed here.

Earlier, on arrival at the airport, the pope said he came to give hope to the people of Cuba.

"I carry in my heart the just aspirations and legitimate desires of all Cubans, wherever they may be, their sufferings and their joys, their concerns and their noblest desires," he said.

Pope Benedict will visit the sanctuary where the shrine is housed before flying on to the capital for a meeting with President Raul Castro and a Mass in Revolution Square.