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Pope Calls for Openness in Cuba

January 22, 1998

HAVANA (AP) _ Pope John Paul II and Fidel Castro wasted no time in making their positions clear as the pontiff, greeted by vast crowds of cheering, hymn-singing Cubans, began a five-day journey to strengthen his long-beleaguered church in Cuba.

The pope called for greater openness in Cuba and took a slap at the U.S. economic embargo. Castro likened his own social concerns to those of the pope and vowed that Cubans would die a thousand times rather than forsake their socialist revolution.

Thousands of journalists had gathered for a confrontation between an anti-communist pope and the communist leader. But both men had other, broader concerns that made pontiff’s historic visit possible and created a display of religious exuberance not seen here since 1959.

``The Cuban people today feel the happiest of anyone in the world,″ said 50-year-old Margarita Roche, who with 200 people, mostly children, marched more than 20 blocks from two Old Havana churches to reach the papal route.

Stressing his mission of spreading moral values in a land where the church’s message was long muted and where abortion and divorce are common, the pope today celebrates the value of families during a Mass in the west-central city of Santa Clara.

During the welcoming ceremony at Havana airport on Wednesday, the two aging leaders, each in his 70s, gave a hint of topics they will discuss tonight during a meeting in Havana.

The pontiff called both for greater openness in Cuba and indirectly criticized the three-decade-old U.S. embargo of the Caribbean nation.

``May Cuba, with all its magnificent potential, open itself up to the world, and may the world open itself up to Cuba,″ he declared.

He firmly endorsed what he called the ``legitimate desires″ of the Roman Catholic church in Cuba _ its quest for more freedom to spread the Gospel under a communist government that restricted the rights of religious believers during three decades of official atheism that ended only six years ago.

In his welcoming address, Castro, clad in a double-breasted blue suit, denounced the U.S. embargo as ``genocide,″ and sought to identify his revolution’s ideals with those of the church.

``Another country will not be found better disposed to understand your felicitous idea ... that the equitable distribution of wealth and solidarity among men and peoples should be globalized,″ said Castro.

``We feel the same way you do about many important issues of today’s world,″ Castro said. ``In other matters our views are different, but we are most respectful of your strong convictions about the ideas you defend.″

Saying earlier that he was determined to prove to the world that Cuba is a land of religious tolerance, Castro helped mobilize a massive turnout, giving workers a half-day off to attend the ceremony and organizing transportation to the event on a scale usually reserved only for the socialist state’s largest secular celebrations.

But there was nothing manufactured about the joy of many in the crowd.

Tens of thousands waved Vatican and Cuban flags, cheered and sang hymns even after the pontiff rolled past in his white Popemobile along a 12-mile route lined 20 deep in some places.

``I feel very happy. He brings the hope to live,″ said Adelaida Penalver, an 80-year-old pensioner in a wheelchair pushed by neighbors to see the pope.

The visit by the ailing pontiff, long delayed, much anticipated, may help set a new course for the Cuban church, if not for Cuba itself.

But no matter what else his visit brings, said Orquidea Mesa, one pious Havana parishioner, ``the pope will bless the people of Cuba″ _ 11 million who for four decades have suffered through one of the world’s longest-running political showdowns.

As part of efforts to strengthen the church, which was relatively weak in Cuba even before Castro’s 1959 revolution, the pope was to stress themes of patriotism and youth during events in Camaguey, Santiago and Havana later in the week.

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