Pope to meet Fidel Castro

2012-03-28 10:53

Pope Benedict XVI is to meet Fidel Castro and celebrate a huge outdoor mass in Havana as he wraps up a three-day visit in which he called for a more “open society” on the Communist-run island.

Cuban leaders insisted there would be no political reforms following the pope’s visit, but Fidel Castro said he would “gladly” meet Benedict before the open-air mass in Havana’s Revolution Square.

Yesterday the pontiff met President Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother, and asked that Cuba declare Good Friday – commemorating the crucifixion of Jesus – a national holiday, according to papal spokesperson Federico Lombardi.

The two also exchanged gifts, with Castro offering the pope a statue of Cuba’s patron saint, Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, and the 84-year-old pontiff giving the Cuban leader a copy of Ptolemy’s “Geography.”

The pope – leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics – is seeking to bolster the Church’s relationship with Cuban authorities, and to encourage new and renewed faith in the mainly secular island nation.

But his calls for openness prompted Cuban vice president Marino Murillo to rule out any sweeping political reforms in the Americas’ only one-party Communist state.

“In Cuba, there will be no political reforms,” Murillo, who is in charge of carrying out the economic reform program ordered over the past few years by Raul Castro, told reporters.

“What we are talking about is an updating of our Cuban economic model, which makes our own form of socialism more sustainable, for the well-being of our people,” he said.

At the start of the visit Monday – the first by a pope to Cuba in 14 years – Benedict urged the faithful at a mass in Santiago to help construct a “renewed and open society, a better society, one more worthy of humanity.”

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