HAVANA (AP) — Tens of thousands of people have massed in Havana's Revolution Plaza for Pope Benedict XVI's Mass on the final day of his visit to Cuba.
Many people are standing under umbrellas to shade themselves from an already blistering sun as they listen to prayers broadcast to the crowd. Benedict made his way to the plaza in his white popemobile. A massive Cuban flag was draped next to the plaza's iconic image of revolutionary leader Ernesto "Che" Guevara.
Benedict will celebrate the Mass at the shrine of Cuba's revolution before meeting with its leader, Fidel Castro.
Castro announced late Tuesday that he would happily meet with Benedict, saying he was asking for just a "few minutes of his very busy time."
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HAVANA, Cuba (AP) — Pope Benedict XVI wraps up his visit to Cuba on Wednesday with an open-air Mass in the shrine of the Cuban revolution, hoping to revive the Catholic faith in this communist-run country. His other appointment: a meeting with Fidel Castro.
The former Cuban leader announced late Tuesday that he would happily meet with Benedict, saying he was asking for just a "few minutes of his very busy time" in Havana.
The Vatican had already said Benedict was available, so the confirmation from Castro ends weeks of speculation as to whether Castro would repeat the meeting he held with Pope John Paul II during his historic 1998 visit.
"I will happily greet His Excellency Pope Benedict XVI as I did John Paul II, a man for whom contact with children and the humble raised feelings of affection," Castro wrote.
Benedict's Mass in Revolution Plaza comes 14 years after John Paul preached on the same spot before hundreds of thousands of people, Fidel among them. Then, an image of Jesus Christ was displayed opposite the plaza's iconic image of revolutionary hero Ernesto "Che" Guevara, a remarkable development for a country that had been officially atheist until 1992.
This time, a huge poster of Cuba's patron saint, the Virgin of Charity of Cobre, covered the facade of one of the buildings facing the plaza near Che. The icon has been the spiritual focus of Benedict's three-day visit, timed to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the appearance of the diminutive statue.
Benedict visited the statue in a sanctuary near the eastern city of Santiago on Tuesday morning and prayed to her for greater freedom and renewal for all Cubans — another gentle nudge to the government to continue opening itself up to greater reforms.
"I have entrusted to the Mother of God the future of your country, advancing along the ways of renewal and hope, for the greater good of all Cubans," the pope said. "I have also prayed 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 or who are undergoing times of difficulty."
A top official in Havana quickly responded: "In Cuba, there will not be political reform," said Vice President Marino Murillo, Cuba's economic czar.
Before arriving on his trip to Mexico and Cuba, Benedict asserted that Marxism as it was originally conceived is irrelevant for today's reality. Upon arriving on Cuban soil, however, he his language was less direct, and he pressed instead for the Roman Catholic Church to play a greater role in Cuban life and for Cuba's people to enjoy greater freedoms.
The Vatican spokesman said the Holy See didn't take Murillo's comments as a rebuff to Benedict's call, noting that the pope isn't a political leader who can change laws or political systems. But he said Benedict does have some concrete hopes for the visit.
During a nearly hour-long meeting Tuesday with Cuban President Raul Castro — twice the normal length of papal audiences with heads of state — Benedict asked that the government declare a holiday for Good Friday, when Catholics commemorate the death of Christ.
The request, like so much of this trip, was a follow-up of sorts to Cuba's decision to declare Christmas a national holiday in honor of John Paul's 1998 visit. Cubans hadn't had Christmas off for nearly 30 years.
"It's not that it changes reality in a revolutionary way, but it can be a sign of a positive step, as was the case of Christmas after John Paul's visit," said the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi.
The government didn't give an immediate response, but Lombardi said it was natural for Cuba to take time to consider it. The government frequently declares holidays at the last minute and Good Friday this year falls in less than two weeks, on April 6.
Benedict also raised "humanitarian" issues with Raul Castro, an apparent reference to political prisoners. Lombardi said he didn't know if individual cases were discussed.
Primarily, though, Benedict came to Cuba to try to win a greater place in society for the Catholic Church, which has been marginalized in the six decades of Castro family rule.
The island's Communist government never outlawed religion, but it expelled priests and closed religious schools after Fidel Castro came to power in 1959. Tensions eased in the early 1990s when the government removed references to atheism in the constitution and let believers of all faiths join the Communist Party.
John Paul's 1998 visit further warmed relations. But despite years of lobbying, the church has virtually no access to state-run radio or television, is not allowed to administer schools and has not been granted permission to build new places of worship. Only about 10 percent of Cubans are practicing Catholics.
"Naturally a papal visit hopes to be an impulse for further steps, be it for the life of the church or for the good of society in its entirety," Lombardi told reporters, citing media, education and health care as areas where the church wants a greater say.
But in a country that once preached atheism and still is dominated by Marxist thought, that's a hard sell for the government and for ordinary Cubans alike.
Ana Blanco, a 47-year-old Havana resident, complained that people were being told to attend Wednesday's Mass, saying the pressure seemed odd in a country that in her early years taught her religion was wrong.
"Now there's this visit by the pope, and I don't agree with giving it so much importance or making anyone go to the Mass or other activities," the office worker said. "Before it was bad, now it's good. That creates confusion."
Associated Press writers Peter Orsi, Vivian Sequera, Anne-Marie Garcia and Laura Wides-Munoz contributed to this report.
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