SANTIAGO, Cuba (Reuters) - Pope Benedict will pay homage on Tuesday to a representation of Cuba's patron saint, a diminutive doll-sized figurine called the Virgin of Charity of El Cobre, on a trip he hopes will bring greater freedoms to the communist-run island.
The pontiff's visit comes on the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the icon, which is an important figure for both the Roman Catholic Church and Santeria, the Afro-Cuban religion that is a legacy of Cuba's slavery era and knows her as Ochun, the goddess of love.
Found floating in a bay in 1612 by fishermen, the icon was revered by Cuba's independence heroes and sits in the foothills of the Sierra Maestra mountains from which Fidel Castro and Ernesto 'Che' Guevara staged the 1959 Cuban revolution.
The pope was inspired to visit Cuba after he saw a procession of a replica of the figurine, also known as the Mambisa Virgin, around the island last year that drew hundreds of thousands of people, and the Church hopes Benedict's presence will help spark a faith revival.
It is also hoping it will boost its role as an interlocutor on social issues, including human rights.
"Devotion to the Virgin Mambisa has sustained the faith and inspired the defence and promotion of all that gives dignity to the human condition and fundamental rights," the pope said on his arrival in Cuba on Monday.
"I ... wish to go to El Cobre to kneel at the feet of the Mother of God, to thank her for her concern for all her Cuban children, and to ask her to guide the future of this beloved nation in the ways of justice, peace, freedom and reconciliation."
The pope will make a private visit to the sanctuary where the icon is housed after spending the night at a refurbished guest house nearby, before heading to the capital, Havana.
He will also see a shrine to the Virgin at the sanctuary where Cubans of all denominations have left an array of offerings, from signed baseballs to judo medals, bags of human hair to trinkets and letters, seeking miracles and blessings.
Longtime Cuba resident Ernest Hemingway donated his 1954 Nobel Literature Prize to the icon, but the medallion has since been stored away after it was briefly stolen in the 1980s.
After arriving from Mexico to start his first trip to Cuba, the 84-year-old pope celebrated an open-air Mass on Monday for tens of thousands of people in Santiago's Revolution Square, and urged Cubans to build a better, "renewed and open society".
While he made thinly veiled references to Cuba's human rights record, he appeared to ease off after saying just days earlier that communism in Cuba no longer worked and a new economic model was needed.
IMPROVED CHURCH-STATE RELATIONS
"The government needs to loosen its grip on power," said 80-year-old Belkis Ivonnet Lopez, as she watched Monday's Mass in Santiago. "We lived very well before the revolution. No one was hungry, everyone had everything they needed. ... But that's not the case now, everything is very expensive. Life was better before."
Some ordinary Cubans disagree, and say they want Cuba to remain communist.
"I hope the pope's visit brings peace and helps ... to end the blockade the United States has unjustly imposed," said Juana Niris Perez, 55, a waitress at a hotel in Santiago.
"The model here should not be changed. Other countries should follow the Cuban example," she added, extolling the island's free education and healthcare.
President Raul Castro has steadily improved relations with the Church, using it as an interlocutor on issues such as political prisoners and dissidents, while moving forward with reforms to Cuba's struggling Soviet-style economy.
They include slashing a million government jobs and freeing up some sectors to small-scale private enterprise. The Church has urged Castro to move further and faster to modernize Cuba, both economically and politically.
Castro showed deference to the pope at Monday's Mass, walking up steps to take his hand and bowing.
Church officials say Benedict's schedule in Cuba has not allowed for meetings with dissidents, who say Castro's government flouts human rights and suppresses their voices.
(Additional reporting by Nelson Acosta; Writing by Simon Gardner; Editing by Peter Cooney)