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Pope to Visit Cuba, Mexico

Pope Benedict XVI waves after his arrival at Tegel airport in Berlin, Germany, Thursday, Sept. 22, 2011.

Senior Roman Catholic officials say Pope Benedict XVI will visit Cuba and Mexico next year, his first Papal visit to the two Latin American nations.

Monsignor Jose Felix Perez, one of the Vatican's top officials in Cuba, said Thursday the exact dates have not yet been determined. Perez said he thought the pontiff's visit would energize Cuba's Catholic community and perhaps be a chance to discuss reforms with Cuba's government.

Relations were long strained between the Roman Catholic Church and Cuba under former President Fidel Castro, but began to improve in the 1990s. After Pope John Paul's visit to Cuba in 1998, Mr. Castro declared Cuba a secular state, in which the government takes no official stance on religious matters.

This allowed Cubans greater religious expression in what had been a largely atheistic society.

More recently, the Roman Catholic Church helped broker an agreement to release more than 100 political prisoners.

Havana has long maintained it does not hold political prisoners, only "mercenaries" who were working with the United States to undermine Cuban communism.

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