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Cuban Catholics Celebrate in Canada

July 26, 2002

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TORONTO (AP) _ The largest contingent of Cubans ever allowed by the communist government to travel to a foreign religious event celebrated with enthusiasm as they welcomed Pope John Paul II to World Youth Day festivities in Toronto.

Dressed in yellow and white World Youth Day T-shirts and waving Cuban flags, the 200 pilgrims listened to the pontiff’s opening address Thursday and cheerfully greeted curious visitors from other nations.

``Viva el Papa!″ shouted Aileen Lorenzo Del Rio, 19, as the pope finished his speech. The psychology student from Havana said she was excited to see how differently religion is treated in Canada and to meet Catholics from other cultures.

``This is a great experience for Cuban youth,″ said Wilfredo Leiter, 23, a seminary student from Santa Clara, Cuba. ``It’s a very rare opportunity to be here as a Christian meeting the pope. It really validates your faith.″

Most of the Cuban pilgrims visiting Toronto had never been outside their island nation, said Bishop Carlos Baladron of the Guantanamo-Baracoa diocese.

``Young people in Cuba haven’t had opportunities to participate in events like this,″ he said. ``They don’t know the outside world.″

About 60 percent of Cubans are nominally Catholic, Baladron said, but fewer than 4 percent worship actively. He said President Fidel Castro’s stance on organized religion has softened since John Paul visited in January 1998.

``We were surprised by Castro’s demeanor when the pope was there,″ Baladron said. ``He was full of reverence. There was a renewal of the Catholic faith.″

Now the communist government is far more tolerant of Catholics than it used to be, but open worship is still discouraged, the pilgrims said. Catholics who prayed in church basements can celebrate Mass. But limits remain.

``You need a permit from the state for any public Mass or celebration,″ Leiter said.

Traveling to Canada meant months of planning. Baladron and his colleagues had to organize exit and entry visas and raise money through church collections. Their main sponsors were Canadian organizers and the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Laity, which coordinates World Youth Days.

During their weeklong stay in Toronto, the young Cubans are joining the 200,000 other pilgrims for catechism classes, an all-night vigil and a Mass with the pope.

They also have non-religious activities planned, including a visit to Niagara Falls and a meeting Friday with a group of Cuban-Americans.

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