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'No political reforms' in Cuba

A top Cuban official has said there are no prospects for political change on the communist-run island despite Pope Benedict XVI's appeals for "renewal" and "a better society".

Marino Murillo, Cuba's economic tsar and a vice president on president Raul Castro's council of ministers, said that while the country is shaking up its economy, "in Cuba there will not be political reform".

Mr Murillo's comments to a room full of journalists covering the papal visit were a quick and categorical response to comments by Benedict earlier in the day, when he made a highly symbolic prayer visit to the shrine of the nation's patron saint.

"I have entrusted to the Mother of God the future of your country, advancing along the ways of renewal and hope, for the greater good of all Cubans," the Pope said at the sanctuary in the little town of El Cobre.

"I have also prayed to the Virgin for the needs of those who suffer, of those who are deprived of freedom, those who are separated from their loved ones or who are undergoing times of difficulty."

On the second day of his Cuban tour, the Pope knelt silently before the Virgin of Charity of Cobre for several minutes, his eyes open and hands clasped.

The crowned, wooden statue just over a foot tall stood on a covered table shrouded in blue and white cloth. The 84-year-old pontiff then rose with the help of two Cuban bishops, approached the statue, lit a candle and stood in prayer as a choir sang hymns.

The Pope pointedly referred to the Virgin by her popular name, La Mambisa, in a gesture to the many non-Catholics on the island who nonetheless venerate the statue as an Afro-Cuban deity. Mambisa is the word for the Cuban fighters who won independence from Spain at the turn of the last century.

In subtle ways, the Pope has acknowledged a lack of faith in what is Latin America's least Catholic countries, and tried to make his trip appealing to potential believers. The visit is timed for the 400th anniversary of the appearance of the statue of the Virgin to two fishermen and an African slave in Cuba's Bay of Hipe.

Dunia Felipillo, 45, said she was proud to see the Pope praying before the Virgin of Charity, even though she herself was not Catholic.

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