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The Olé Father: Pope Benedict visits Cuba and Mexico

Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Cuba today saying he came as a "pilgrim of charity".

President Raul Castro warmly greeted the pope as he arrived at the sweltering airport in Santiago, Cuba's second largest city.

The pontiff, who last week said Marxism "no longer responds to reality," gave a more gentle tweak to his hosts by expressing sympathy for all islanders, including prisoners.

"I carry in my heart the just aspirations and legitimate desires of all Cubans, wherever they may be," he said. "Those of the young and the elderly, of adolescents and children, of the sick and workers, of prisoners and their families, and of the poor and those in need."

In his own remarks, the Cuban leader assured Benedict his country favours complete religious freedom and has good relations with all religious institutions.

"The Cuban Constitution consecrates and guarantees total religious freedom for all citizens," he said.

He also criticised the 50-year-old US economic embargo and defended the socialist ideal of providing for those less fortunate.

"We have confronted scarcity but have never failed in our duty to share with those who have less," Castro said.

The two men greeted each other with clasped hands and wide smiles after the pope arrived on a special Alitalia flight that flew Cuban and Vatican flags from the cockpit as it taxied along the airport tarmac.

Benedict's three-day stay in Cuba will inevitably spark comparisons to John Paul II's historic 1998 tour, when Fidel Castro traded 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."

In his remarks 14 years ago, John Paul singled out Cuban political prisoners jailed for their ideas, something Benedict did not do in today's speech.

Cuba has released dozens of political prisoners in recent years - often through agreements with the church - and denies it holds any now. Officials refer to dissidents as stooges in the sway of its US enemies. Human rights groups say some Cubans remain jailed for their political activities, and note that harassment and brief detentions of dissidents is on the rise.

Unlike in Mexico, where multitudes showed up to greet the 84-year-old pope at the airport, normal citizens were kept away from Cuba's tightly controlled arrival ceremony, which took place on the tarmac in 31C weather.

The pontiff was scheduled to travel through town in his glassed-in popemobile and then rally tens of thousands of believers at an outdoor Mass in the colonial city's main square on a blue-and-white platform crowned by graceful arches in the shape of a papal mitre. Benedict will spend the night in a house beside the shrine of Cuba's patron saint, the Virgin of Charity of Cobre.

Benedict will only be in Cuba for a little over 48 hours, and his limited schedule is sure to disappoint many who want a piece of his attention, from the dissident community, to practitioners of the Afro-Cuban Santeria faith, to returning Cuban American exiles and even representatives of imprisoned US government subcontractor Alan Gross who are hoping the pontiff will intercede on his behalf.

The Vatican has said the pope has no plans to meet with any of them, citing his advanced age and need for rest. More likely but still unconfirmed is a face-to-face with Fidel Castro, who stepped down in 2006 but remains the father of the revolution and is still referred to as "El Comandante."

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