Pope hoping to rally Cuban catholics

The pope left Spanish-speaking Latin America’s most Roman Catholic country today on his way to its least.

The pope left Spanish-speaking Latin America’s most Roman Catholic country today on his way to its least.

He hopes to inspire the same outpouring of faith in communist-run Cuba as he did in Mexico’s conservative Catholic heartland.

His first stop is Santiago de Cuba, the island’s second city that is home to the Virgin of Charity of Cobre, a tiny wooden statue that is revered by Cubans, Catholic and not.

The pope will celebrate an open-air Mass in Santiago’s main plaza then pray at the sanctuary housing the statue before heading to Havana, where he will meet Cuban President Raul Castro – and presumably his brother Fidel.

The pope’s three-day stay in Cuba will of course spark comparisons to Pope John Paul II’s historic 1998 tour, when Fidel Castro shed his army fatigues for a suit and tie to greet the pope at Havana’s airport and where John Paul uttered the now famous words: “May Cuba, with all its magnificent potential, open itself up to the world, and may the world open itself up to Cuba.”

Those comparisons were also evident in Mexico, which had claimed John Paul as its own during his five visits over a nearly 27-year pontificate. But with his first visit to Mexico, Pope Benedict appeared to lay to rest the impression that he is a distant, cold pontiff who can never compare to the charisma and personal connection forged by his predecessor.

The pope charmed the crowd at Sunday Mass in Mexico by donning a sombrero for his popemobile tour through the estimated 350,000 people. He put on another one later when he was serenaded by a mariachi band as he returned to the school where he has been staying.

While Cubans eagerly awaited his arrival, the political overtones on the second leg of his trip were far greater than those he encountered in Mexico.

Cuba’s single-party, Communist government never outlawed religion, but it expelled priests and closed religious schools on Fidel Castro’s takeover in 1959. Tensions eased in the early 1990s when the government removed references to atheism in the constitution and let believers of all faiths join the Communist Party.

John Paul’s 1998 visit further warmed relations.

But problems remain. Despite years of lobbying, the church has virtually no access to state-run radio or television, is not allowed to administer schools, and has not been granted permission to build new places of worship. The island of 11.2 million people has just 361 priests. Before 1959 there were 700 priests for a population of six million.

The Catholic Church, however, is now the most influential independent institution in the country, thanks in no small part to Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the archbishop of Havana. He has negotiated with Raul Castro for the release of political prisoners, given the government advice on economic policy and allowed church magazines to publish increasingly frank articles about the need for change.

In the weeks leading up to Benedict’s arrival, the government cracked down on dissidents with detentions. But on Sunday, the dissident group known as the Ladies in White held its customary weekly protest outside a Havana church without incident.

The Vatican has said the pope has no plans to meet the dissidents. More certain but still unconfirmed is a meeting with Fidel Castro. And a new wildcard entered into play with the arrival on Saturday of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who is getting radiation therapy for his cancer.

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