Pope urges 'open society' at Cuba mass

2012-03-27 10:59
Santiago - Pope Benedict XVI urged tens of thousands of Cubans gathered for an open-air mass on Monday to "build a renewed and open society", at the start of his visit to the Communist-ruled country.

The pontiff - making the first papal visit to Cuba in 14 years - is seeking to bolster close church-state ties here while also urging authorities in the Americas' only one-party Communist state to embrace change.

Benedict, who arrived on Monday after a visit to predominantly Roman Catholic Mexico, also hopes to encourage new and renewed faith in the mainly secular island nation.

"I appeal to you to reinvigorate your faith ... and armed with peace, forgiveness and understanding, that you may strive to build a renewed and open society, a better society, one more worthy of humanity," the pontiff told the flag-waving throng in Santiago, massed under soaring white metal church arches.

The 84-year-old Benedict was helped up to his seat and smiled as the crowd sang and chanted to welcome him.

President Raul Castro - who had earlier greeted the pope at the airport in Santiago, Cuba's second largest city - was seated in the front row, sporting a white guayabera tropical shirt.

The crowd of an estimated 200 000 sang hymns, some joining their arms held high. Others folded their hands in prayer, listening intently to the pope's words. One worshipper waved a banner reading "It is good to trust the Lord."

The pontiff is working to try to expand the flock in Cuba, which was officially atheist until the early 1990s.

Possible demonstrations

"I carry in my heart the just aspirations and legitimate desires of all Cubans, wherever they may be, their sufferings and their joys, their concerns and their noblest desires," the pope said earlier in southeastern Santiago.

"I am convinced that Cuba, at this moment of particular importance in its history, is already looking to the future, and thus is striving to renew and broaden its horizons."

Marxism "no longer corresponds to reality", Benedict said last week as he set off on his first trip to Spanish-speaking nations in Latin America, calling for "new models" in Cuba.

Cuba's leadership, however, says democracy already exists here, and rejects the idea of a western multiparty system.

Before the mass, Benedict rolled in his white Mercedes Popemobile down the streets of Santiago, as crowds of enthusiastic Cubans waved yellow and white Vatican and Cuban blue, white and red flags to greet him.

"Cuba has good relations with all religious institutions in our country," Castro said as he welcomed the pope.

Authorities meanwhile have rounded up at least 150 dissidents in the past few days to thwart any possible demonstrations during the two-city papal visit, the head of an opposition group told AFP in Havana.

On Tuesday, Benedict was to visit the Our Lady of Charity shrine outside Santiago, and then fly to Havana, before celebrating Mass in its sprawling Revolution Square on Wednesday.

John Paul II's 1998 trip was the first papal visit to Cuba. Expectations were high then that the charismatic Polish pontiff might help spark change in Cuba after decades of centrally-run government, economy and media.

Cuban reality

He did indeed help start a steady thaw, and then co-operation, in local Catholic relations with the Cuban government.

But more than a decade later, despite John Paul II's calls for Cuba to "open up to the world", the country remains isolated, its economy still centrally planned and feeble. Most Cubans earn less than $20.00 a month.

The Catholic church has nonetheless emerged as the most important non-state actor in Cuba, even mediating prisoner releases. But it does not have its own media or school systems as it would like.

Benedict has no plans to meet with members of the Cuban opposition.

The pope "knows the Cuban reality" and whether "he meets with the opponents or not does not mean he is unaware" of their situation, Archbishop Dionisio Garcia of Santiago Garcia said on Saturday.

"Pushing hard and insisting on [Benedict] meeting with the Ladies in White [or other dissidents] could complicate matters for the Church," added Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.

"It is very difficult. And they have to strike this balance. ... They don't want to jeopardise the gains" the Church has made in recent years, he added.

Cuba's Catholics account for about 10% of the country's population of 11 million. Evangelical Protestants are making inroads here, but most Cubans identify most with AfroCuban belief systems, such as Santeria and Palo Monte.

Read more on:    pope benedict xvi  |  cuba
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