Pope Benedict XVI has arrived in communist Cuba with the aim of awakening the faith in what was once officially an atheist state.
Benedict was greeted Monday by President Raul Castro at an airport in Cuba's second largest city, Santiago. His visit marks the 400th anniversary of the religious icon, the Virgin of Charity of El Cobre, venerated by many Cubans regardless of their faith.
The pontiff said he came to Cuba as a "pilgrim of charity," and he made a veiled reference to Cuba's political prisoners. "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, those of the young and the elderly, of adolescents and children, of the sick and workers, of prisoners and their families, and of the poor and those in need," he said.
He also said change is in Cuba's future. "I am convinced that Cuba, at this moment of particular importance in its history, is already looking to the future and thus is striving to renew and broaden its horizons. Of great help in this enterprise will be the fine patrimony of spiritual and moral values which fashioned the nation's true identity and which stand out in the work and the life of many distinguished fathers of the country," he said.
The pope arrives at time when church-state relations are warming. The Roman Catholic Church has grown to become the most influential institution behind 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.
Pope Benedict set the tone for his trip Friday when he said the Catholic Church is ready to help Cuba move away from communism. He said the Marxist ideology no longer corresponds to reality, and he offered the Church's help to move Cuba ahead without "trauma."
Cuban dissidents hope they will be able to present the pope with their views about the government.
In Santiago, at least 15 members of the Ladies in White, a prominent dissident group, have been detained. The group is comprised of wives and mothers of 75 dissidents jailed in a 2003 crackdown on opponents of former Cuban leader Fidel Castro. Each week, the women, dressed in white, march in Havana to demand the release of political prisoners. The Ladies in White, along with many other people, have asked for an audience with the pope during his visit.
But the Archbishop of Santiago says the pope's time is limited.
“Many people came to give us lots of requests, lots, you can't imagine how many," he said. "One said: 'I'm having problems with my home, and I believe the Holy Father can help me.' Others have participated in this call from the Ladies in White. We have channeled these requests.”
A group that monitors detentions on the island says 70 government opponents have been arrested in the four days leading up to the pontiff's visit.
Pope Benedict will celebrate Mass in Santiago before heading to the capital, Havana, to complete his three-day visit. It is not clear whether he will meet with Fidel Castro or Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who is in the Cuban capital for cancer treatment.
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 AP, AFP and Reuters.