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Thousands attend Mass with Pope in Havana

Posted at 10:41 AM, Sep 20, 2015
and last updated 2015-09-20 10:41:30-04

HAVANA (AP) -- Thousands of Cubans filled Havana's evocative Revolution Plaza for Pope Francis' first Mass, curious to see history's first Latin American pope on their home turf and hopeful over the key role he played in bringing about the historic detente with the U.S.

Believers and non-believers alike streamed into the square before dawn to wait for Francis to arrive, and they erupted in cheers and when he made his first drive-through the crowd in his open-sided popemobile. They waved Cuban, Vatican and Argentine flags as a chorus sang a mix of traditional Cuban songs and religious tunes.

Francis stopped several times to kiss children handed up to him and to bless several wheelchair-bound Cubans. He seemed to want to prolong the time in the crowd, which was framed by the plaza's iconic metal portrait of Che Guevara and a huge poster of Christ facing the altar.

Mauren Gomez, 40, travelled some 250 kilometers (155 miles)from Villa Clara to Havana by bus with four friends for the Mass, saying they spent their pilgrimage praying the Rosary. "This is very important for us," she said.

Jose Rafael Velazquez, a 54-year-old worker, arrived with his wife at the plaza three hours before Mass was due to begin. He said he isn't religious, but came more out of curiosity to witness a historic event.

"We also are very hopeful for this visit, because the pope was key in the deal with the United States," he said. "Ever since the announcement, there have been changes and this visit gives me more hope that it'll get better."

The morning Mass kicks off a busy series of events for Francis, including a formal meeting with President Raul Castro and a likely encounter with his 89-year-old brother, Fidel. Francis will finish with an evening vespers service in the San Cristobal cathedral and meet with Cuban young people.

Francis wrote a personal appeal to Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro and hosted their delegations at a secret meeting at the Vatican last year to seal a deal after 18 months of closed-door negotiations. Since then, the two leaders have reopened embassies in each other's countries, held a personal meeting and at least two phone calls and launched a process aimed at normalizing ties in fields ranging from trade to tourism to telecommunications.

Upon his arrival, Francis plunged head-first into the rapprochement, urging the Cuban and U.S. governments to push forward on their newly forged path and "develop all its possibilities."

The Vatican has long opposed the U.S. trade embargo on the grounds that it hurts ordinary Cubans most, and is clearly hopeful that detente will eventually lead to a lifting of sanctions.

But only the U.S. Congress can remove the embargo. Francis will visit Congress next week at the start of the U.S. leg of his trip, but it's not known if he will raise the issue there.

Standing with Raul Castro by his side, Francis said the developments over recent months have given him hope.

"I urge political leaders to persevere on this path and to develop all its possibilities as a proof of the high service which they are called to carry out on behalf of the peace and well-being of their peoples, of all America, and as an example of reconciliation for the entire world," he said.

Castro, for his part, criticized the embargo as "cruel, immoral and illegal" and called for it to end. But he also thanked Francis again for his role in fostering "the first step" in a process of normalizing relations.

The pope's message on Sunday is likely to be less political and more pastoral.

Francis has said he is coming to Cuba as a messenger of mercy, aiming to give solidarity to a long-suffering people and church.

The island's communist government never outlawed religion per se. But it came close, closing religious schools after Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, expelling priests and sending others to prison or work camps, including the current archbishop of Havana, Cardinal Jaime Ortega.

Castro began easing prohibitions on faith in the 1990s, removing constitutionally enshrined atheism ahead of a visit by Pope John Paul II and reinstating Christmas as a public holiday soon after.

The Catholic Church today has quietly established itself as practically the only independent institution with any widespread influence on the island. Expanding into areas once utterly dominated by the state, the church is providing tens of thousands of people with food, education, business training and even libraries stocked with foreign best-sellers.

But it still is seeking more freedom to spread the faith: Church authorities have long wanted to run full-time private schools and get religious programming on state-run airwaves, both of which the government has resisted

While most Cubans are nominally Catholic, fewer than 10 percent practice their faith.

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Associated Press writers E. Eduardo Castillo and Anne-Marie Garcia in Havana and Christine Armario and Andrea Rodriguez in Holguin, Cuba, contributed to this report.

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