Pope to meet Cuban leader Fidel Castro

Wednesday, 28 Mar 2012, 15:30


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Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro says he will meet Wednesday with Pope Benedict in Havana, before the pontiff ends his three-day visit to the communist-ruled island.  

In a statement published late Tuesday on a government website, the 85-year-old Castro announced he had requested "a few minutes" of the Catholic leader's time.  The pope is scheduled to hold an outdoor Mass in the city's Revolution Plaza.

The pontiff briefly met Tuesday with Cuban President Raul Castro, Fidel's younger brother and successor, after his arrival in Havana from the city of Santiago.  A Vatican spokesman says Pope Benedict asked Mr. Castro to officially designate Good Friday, the day Christians observe the death of Jesus, as a national holiday. 

The spokesman also said the pope made a "humanitarian request" of Mr. Castro, without saying whether he asked for the release of political prisoners or specifically Alan Gross, a U.S. contractor jailed in 2009 on charges of crimes against the communist state.

Pope Benedict arrived Monday in 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 told reporters Tuesday "there will not be political reform" in Cuba.

Pope Benedict traveled to Havana after paying homage Tuesday to the patron saint of Cuba, the Virgin of Charity of El Cobre.

The pope visited the shrine housing the Virgin of Charity of El Cobre to mark the 400th anniversary of its discovery by fishermen.  The doll-sized wooden statue is revered in Cuba and within the Roman Catholic Church. 

Pope Benedict told an audience he has prayed for the needs of those who suffer and who are deprived of freedom, as well as those who are separated from their loved ones or are undergoing times of difficulty.

His visit comes 14 years after his predecessor, John Paul the Second, 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.

Source: Voice of America

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