VATICAN CITY - Pope Francis will visit Cuba en route to the United States in September, the Vatican said on Wednesday, capping his success in bringing the former enemies together after more than half a century of frozen antagonism.
Last December, Havana and Washington announced after 18 months of secret diplomacy brokered by the pope's diplomats and Canada that the two sides were working to reopen embassies in their respective capitals.
Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi did not specify how long the stop in Cuba would last, saying only that Francis had accepted invitations made by the Cuban government and the Cuban Roman Catholic Church.
It will be the Argentine pope's first visit to the Caribbean island nation as pontiff. Both his predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, visited the island and met revolutionary leader Fidel Castro.
"The presence of his holiness in Cuba will be memorable. He will receive the warmest hospitality of the Cuban people," Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez told a news conference during a visit to Brussels.
He spoke after talks with EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, who announced the EU and Cuba had agreed to set up a "structured human rights dialogue" with an initial meeting in Brussels in June. That would be in parallel with talks on trade and investment that the two sides have launched.
Monsignor Jose Felix Perez of the Cuban Catholic Bishops' Conference told Reuters in Havana that both Cuban President Raul Castro and U.S. President Barack Obama had thanked Pope Francis for his mediation.
"His mediation, without a doubt, was effective and in line with the Christian spirit that always brings out reconciliation as the solution to conflicts," Perez said.
Cuba had been a focal point for Vatican diplomats ever since Fidel Castro took power in 1959 and restricted church activities in what had been a staunchly Catholic country.
The Vatican's opposition to the U.S. embargo on Cuba over the decades gave it credibility with Havana as a diplomatic broker while at the same time it had good relations with a string of U.S. administrations.
Initiating new ties
Obama visited the pope last year and discussed Cuba. Francis later wrote personal letters to Obama and Raul Castro urging them to "initiate a new phase" in their relations.
Obama and Castro met on April 11 at the Summit of the Americas in Panama, the first formal face-to-face meeting of the two countries' leaders in more than half a century.
After Pope John Paul visited Cuba in 1998, Francis, who was then a bishop, wrote a book called "Dialogues between John Paul and Fidel Castro" that touched on themes such as family, education, poverty and political ideologies on the island.
The pope is due to arrive in Washington on Sept. 22 and will also visit New York and Philadelphia. He will go to the White House and Congress in Washington and address the United Nations in New York.