Pope Francis has hailed the detente between the US and Cuba as a model of reconciliation for the world.
Francis urged presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro to persevere in building normal ties as he launched a 10-day tour of the former Cold War foes.
The pontiff’s surprisingly direct call for progress toward normalisation came after weeks of Vatican assurances he would not explicitly address politics during his pastoral trip to Cuba and the US. Pope Francis served as mediator and guarantor of 18 months of secret talks that led to the resumption of diplomatic relations between the two countries this year.
“For some months now, we have witnessed an event which fills us with hope: the process of normalising relations between two peoples following years of estrangement,” he said in a speech on the tarmac of Jose Marti International Airport.
“I urge political leaders to persevere on this path and to develop all its potentialities as a proof of the high service which they are called to carry out on behalf of the peace and wellbeing of their peoples, of all America, and as an example of reconciliation for the entire world.”
Thousands filled Havana’s Revolution Plaza for the Pope’s first Mass. Believers and non-believers alike streamed into the square before dawn to wait for Francis to arrive, and they erupted in cheers when he made his first drive-through the crowd in his open-sided popemobile. They waved Cuban, Vatican, and Argentine flags as a chorus sang traditional Cuban songs and religious tunes.
Francis stopped several times to kiss children handed up to him and to bless several wheelchair-bound Cubans. He seemed to want to prolong the time in the crowd, which was framed by the plaza’s iconic metal portrait of Che Guevara and a huge poster of Christ facing the altar.
The morning Mass kicked off a busy series of events for Francis, including a formal meeting with President Raul Castro and a likely encounter with his 89-year-old brother, Fidel. The Pope finished with an evening vespers service in the San Cristobal cathedral and met with Cuban young people.
Like the last two popes to visit Cuba, Francis had no meetings with dissidents on his official schedule and his speeches were being closely watched for their handling of two delicate and related topics: human rights in Cuba and the church’s freedom to operate in the officially agnostic, communist state.
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