HAVANA, Cuba (Reuters) - Pope Benedict urged Cubans to “work for justice” as their country changes and prayed for “those deprived of freedom” in a visit to the shrine for Cuba’s patron saint on Tuesday and then flew across the country for talks with President Raul Castro.
Upon arrival at the Havana airport, he was greeted by Roman Catholic Church Cardinal Jaime Ortega and Communist Party officials ahead of a late afternoon meeting with Raul Castro and possibly his older brother, former leader Fidel Castro.
Benedict, the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, and Raul Castro were expected to discuss the church’s desire for a greater role in Cuban society through an expansion of its social services, educational offerings and access to mass media, which are state-owned.
The pope also hopes to spark a revival of religious faith in Cuba, which from 1976 to 1991 was officially atheist.
The meeting with Raul Castro comes amid recently improved church-state relations after decades of hostility that followed the 1959 revolution, which transformed Cuba into what is now one of the world’s last communist states.
Benedict arrived for the second papal trip to Cuba in history on Monday in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba, where he celebrated a public Mass attended by tens of thousands of people in a light rain. He will give a second open-air Mass on Wednesday in Havana’s vast Revolution Square before heading back to Rome.
Pope John Paul II came to Cuba in 1998 on a landmark visit in which he memorably urged Cuba to open itself to the world and the world to open itself to Cuba.
Cuba is marking the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the Virgin figure, which was found floating in a bay in 1612 by three fishermen and is an important symbol for both the Roman Catholic Church and Santeria, the Afro-Cuban religion that is a legacy of Cuba’s slavery era. Santeros know her as Ochun, the goddess of love.
Thousands of Cubans go to the shrine each year to pay tribute to the Virgin, to whom they 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 been stored away since it was briefly stolen in the 1980s.
“I have entrusted to the Mother of God the future of your country, advancing along the ways renewal and hope, for the greater good of all Cubans,” the pope said after praying in front of the gold-swathed wooden figure of Virgin and child.
He urged Cubans to “work for justice, to be servants of charity and to persevere in the midst of trials.” In a clear reference to political prisoners as well as Cuban exiles, he offered a prayer 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.”
Cuba has a history of jailing or harassing government opponents, who it views as mercenaries in the pay of the United States, its long-time ideological foe.
Castro released 130 political prisoners in a 2010 deal brokered with the church but dissidents say close to 50 are currently behind bars.
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.
At his open-air Mass on Monday, the pope and urged Cubans to build a better, “renewed and open society” and upon arrival on Monday, he lauded improved Church-state relations, but said they could be better.
Last week en route to Mexico, his first stop on this trip, he told reporters communism in Cuba no longer worked and a new economic model was needed.
Cubans said they hope the pope’s visit helps bring positive changes to the island, although they varied on what changes were needed.
“The government needs to loosen its grip on power,” said 80-year-old Belkis Ivonnet Lopez, at 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.”
“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, referring to the 50-year-old U.S. trade embargo against Cuba.
“The (economic) model here should not be changed. Other countries should follow the Cuban example,” she added, extolling the island’s free education and health care.
Additional reporting by Nelson Acosta; Writing by Simon Gardner; Editing by Jeff Franks and David Adams; Desking by Eric Walsh