Pope to urge healing in Cuba during upcoming visit

Havana (AFP) - Pope Francis will urge Cubans divided for decades over their rigid communist system to bury the hatchet when he visits the island in September, a church official said Thursday.

The pope's visit comes at a historic moment, one in which he played a part: Cuba and the United States restored diplomatic relations this week after a half-century of hostility.

Since the two countries announced their decision in December to restore ties, the process has moved quickly.

And the pope, a Latin American from Argentina with a keen interest in helping the poor, like the people of Cuba, is known to have nudged along the process of bringing Americans and Cubans back together after decades of estrangement dating back to the Cold War.

Since the 1959 revolution led by Fidel Castro, Cubans have been divided over support for Castro and his successor, brother Raul, and a communist system that stifled dissent, restricted overseas travel and oversaw a decrepit state controlled economy that meant monthly wages averaging 20 dollars for most Cubans.

Father Jose Feliz Perez, a spokesman for the Cuban Bishops Conference who is helping prepare the visit, said in an interview with AFP that Francis "will tell all the people of Cuba that we need to reverse attitudes of hostility, indifference and contempt. All of that has to do with bitterness."

Pope Francis will visit Cuba September 19 to 22 as part of a tour that will later take him to the United States.

The pope is very interested in the issues of poverty, emigrants who leave Cuba for other countries and political prisoners, Perez said. "So in one way or another, in his messages he will refer" to these subjects, he said.

Papal visits to Cuba can be very important, and bring about change.

John Paul II made the first papal visit to the island in 1998, a five-day pilgrimage that included a meeting with Fidel Castro and is now credited with establishing the Catholic church as an interlocutor between the Havana government and the opposition as the latter fought and eventually won the release of some political prisoners.

Francis will meet with President Raul Castro, just like his predecessor Benedict XVI, who visited Cuba in 2012.

Benedict met with Fidel Castro then. Perez said no meeting with Fidel is scheduled for this visit by Francis but he would not rule out such a meeting.

During his stay, the pope will say two big outdoor masses, one in Havana and the other in Holguin in the east of the island.

Fidel Castro stepped down as president in 2006 for health reasons.

With this visit Cuba will join Brazil as the only countries to host visits from three different popes.

Perez said this stems from Francis's affection for Cuba, as seen in his efforts to nurture the restoration of US-Cuban ties, and from the fact that he is Latin American and has always be interested in the church's activities in Cuba.

With the announcement of the pope's visit and all the logistical preparations "you perceive a relationship of cordiality" between the church and the government, Perez said.

Dialogue and good, fluid communication began in earnest between the two sides in 2010 under Raul Castro, marked by the release of of dozens of political prisoners jailed since 2003.

Cuba freed another 53 political prisoners this year as part of the rapprochement with the United States.