Pope praises Church 'sacrifices' in Cuba

Jean-Louis De La Vaissiere
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Pope Francis prays at the basilica of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre - patron saint of Cuba- in El Cobre, Santiago de Cuba on September 21, 2015

Pope Francis prays at the basilica of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre - patron saint of Cuba- in El Cobre, Santiago de Cuba on September 21, 2015 (AFP Photo/Filippo Monteforte)

Santiago de Cuba (Cuba) (AFP) - Pope Francis praised the sacrifices of the Catholic Church in communist Cuba, with the island in the midst of a delicate process of resuming relations with the United States.

Francis, the first Latin American pope, made the comments to tens of thousands of fans and faithful in the sweltering eastern city of Holguin before arriving in the afternoon to rain in second city Santiago.

Thousands of people greeted his motorcade in Santiago, underlining how his key role in brokering the thaw between Cuba and the US -- the next destination on his most high-profile trip to date -- has made him immensely popular on the island.

"I know the efforts and the sacrifices being made by the Church in Cuba to bring Christ's word and presence to all, even in the most remote areas," Francis told a packed square earlier in Holguin, where believers braved the tropical heat to attend an open-air mass.

Cuba's Roman Catholic Church has slowly won the space to do charitable works on the island after years of hostilities with former leader Fidel Castro's regime, which was officially atheist for more than three decades.

It has also taken on the part of mediator with Castro's brother and successor Raul, who took power in 2006, as he undertakes tentative reforms.

In a new symbol of the communist regime's reconciliation with the Church, Francis met Fidel, 89, at his home in Havana on Sunday, then held a closed-door meeting with Raul, 84, at the government's headquarters.

But the Church still faces numerous problems in Cuba.

It struggles to recruit clergy in a country of 11 million people where only 10 percent of the population describes itself as Catholic. Half the island's priests are foreigners.

It also relies heavily on donations from abroad to do its work in the deeply impoverished country, and is still banned from operating Catholic schools and media.

- 'Scattered children' -

Holguin, Cuba's fourth-largest city, is the capital of Holguin province, where the Castro brothers were born to a wealthy Spanish sugar cane farmer and a Cuban mother, in the small rural hamlet of Biran.

After celebrating mass, the pope mounted a hill overlooking Holguin to bless the city at the site of a cross erected there in 1790 by a Franciscan monk.

He then flew to Santiago, where he met bishops at a seminary, then led prayers at the basilica to Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, the patron saint of Cuba -- a mixed-race Mary that symbolizes the island's intertwined Spanish and African roots.

In his prayer, Francis alluded to the splitting of the Cuban people into a group that has stayed on the island and exiles who have fled, mainly to the United States -- a painful legacy of the two countries' Cold War standoff.

"Mother of reconciliation, reunite your children scattered around the world," he said.

- Vatican and dissidents -

Francis, 78, arrived in Havana Saturday and had a packed schedule Sunday. He delivered mass to hundreds of thousands of people on Havana's Revolution Square, met both Castro brothers, gave an off-script speech to local clergy and then addressed a crowd of young Cubans.

Three Cuban dissidents were arrested Sunday as they approached Francis shouting "Freedom!" when he arrived for mass in his popemobile.

Cuba bans opposition groups and routinely arrests dissidents who try to protest.

Several leading dissidents have criticized the pope for not accepting their requests to meet him during his visit.

Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi told journalists that Vatican officials had in fact been in contact with some dissidents, but that they had not managed to arrange a meeting.

After saying mass Tuesday morning in Santiago, meeting families and blessing the city, the pope will leave for the United States, where his itinerary includes stops at the White House, the US Congress and the United Nations General Assembly.