Pope Francis leaves Cuba for US

2015-09-22 18:55
Cuba's President Raul Castro speaks with Pope Francis at the airport during the pontiff's farewell ceremony. (AP)

Cuba's President Raul Castro speaks with Pope Francis at the airport during the pontiff's farewell ceremony. (AP)

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Santiago - Pope Francis has left Cuba for the United States, on a trip that symbolises his efforts to secure an improvement in ties between the two neighbours.

Cuban President Raul Castro saw off the pontiff at the airport in the eastern Cuban city of Santiago, as the chartered Alitalia plane that Francis uses took off for Andrews Air Force base.

US President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama will welcome Francis when he lands, after a three-day stay in Communist Cuba.

Earlier in the day, the pope highlighted his mediating role during his last mass in Cuba.

"We want to be a Church which goes forth to build bridges, to break down walls, to sow seeds of reconciliation," Francis said in Santiago.

The pope helped broker a historic rapprochement between Washington and Havana that ended a diplomatic freeze of more than half a century as the two nations restored diplomatic ties on July 20.

At the minor basilica of the shrine dedicated to the country's patroness, "Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre," outside Cuba's second-largest city, the eastern Santiago, Francis called for a Roman Catholic church that is "committed to life, to culture, to society".

President Castro was in attendance, as he had been in previous papal masses on Sunday in Havana and on Monday in Holguin.

Castro, a Marxist and an atheist who has declared himself an admirer of Francis, fulfilled the promise he made to the pontiff in the Vatican in May of attending every papal mass during Francis' trip to Cuba.

Cuban Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel, Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez and other government officials were also at the mass.

After mass, the Argentinian-born pontiff was met with Cuban families at Santiago cathedral before heading to the airport.

"Without family, without the warmth of home, life grows empty, there is a weakening of the networks which sustain us in adversity, nurture us in daily living and motivate us to build a better future," Francis said. 

During his trip to Cuba, the pope met with Cuban leader Fidel Castro, but the authorities prevented two dissident leaders the Vatican had invited to papal events in Havana from attending. Papal spokesperson Federico Lombardi told reporters that Francis had intended to meet with dissidents, but things had not worked out.

The opposition denounced scores of short-term detentions to prevent dissidents from attending papal masses.

Francis was the third pope to visit Cuba, after John Paul II in 1998 and Benedict XVI in 2012.

Highlights of the pontiff's US trip will include the canonisation of Junipero Serra, a controversial 18th century missionary who established churches across California; speeches to Congress and the United Nations; a mass in New York's Madison Square Garden; and a visit to the Ground Zero Memorial.

Francis is also due to meet with the homeless in Washington, migrant families in New York, and prison inmates in Philadelphia, where he will close the World Meeting of Families, before flying back to Rome September 27.

Read more on:    pope francis  |  cuba  |  us

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