By Warren Strobel
VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday asked the Vatican to help win the release of an American contractor who has been in jail in Cuba since 2009.
Kerry, the first Catholic U.S. secretary of state in more than 30 years, stopped at the Vatican on his way to Kuwait to hold talks with Pope Francis' top aide, Secretary of State Archbishop Pietro Parolin.
The talks mostly centered on the Middle East and efforts to bring an end to the Syrian civil war ahead of a peace conference in Geneva later this month.
"We talked also about Cuba and the need for respect for freedom of religion and freedom of, and respect for, human rights," Kerry told reporters after the meeting.
"I raised the issue of Alan Gross and his captivity, and we hope very much that there might be able to be assistance with respect to that issue," he said.
Gross was sentenced to 15 years in prison for installing Internet networks for Cuban Jews in a U.S. program Cuba considers subversive.
His arrest in late 2009 and sentencing in March 2011 stalled a brief period of detente in U.S.-Cuba relations after President Barack Obama took office and quickly loosened restrictions on travel and remittances to the island for Cuban Americans with relatives in Communist-run Cuba.
The Vatican has relatively good diplomatic relations with Cuba. Former Pope Benedict and the late Pope John Paul both made major visits there.
The position held by Parolin, who will be elevated to the rank of cardinal next month, is the second most senior in the Vatican hierarchy after the pope and its holder is sometimes called the "deputy pope".
"We talked at great length on Syria. I was particularly appreciative for the archbishop's raising the issue and equally grateful for the Holy Father's comments ... yesterday regarding his support for the Geneva 2 process," Kerry told reporters.
Pope Francis called for renewed political will to end the conflict in Syria in an address to diplomats at the Vatican on Monday and said he hoped the Geneva 2 conference due on January 22 under U.N. auspices would be the start of a peace process.
Kerry said he briefed Parolin on the broader Middle East process between Israel and Palestinians.
"Obviously, there are issues of enormous concern to the Holy See, not just about peace, but also about the freedom of access for religious worship in Jerusalem for all religions, and appropriate resolution with respect to Jerusalem that respects that," Kerry said.
Israel captured East Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East war and declared all of Jerusalem its "united and eternal capital" in 1980 in a move that has not won international recognition. Palestinians want East Jerusalem to be the capital of a state they seek to establish in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The Vatican wants any peace settlement to guarantee free access to all religious sites in the city, which is sacred to all Christianity, Islam and Judaism.
Kerry is the first Catholic U.S. Secretary of State since Edmund Muskie in the early 1980s and said the visit was very moving for him.
"On a personal level, it was a thrill for me ... as an altar boy, as a young kid, I would never have imagined that I would have been crossing the threshold of the Vatican to meet, as Secretary of State, with the Secretary of State of the Holy See," he said.
(Reporting By Warren Strobel, writing by Philip Pullella)