Pope visits Castros’ home region

Published September 22, 2015
FORMER president Fidel Castro, his wife Dalia Soto del Valle and Pope Francis exchange pleasantries during a meeting at the Cuban leader’s home in Havana.—AFP
FORMER president Fidel Castro, his wife Dalia Soto del Valle and Pope Francis exchange pleasantries during a meeting at the Cuban leader’s home in Havana.—AFP

HOLGUMN (Cuba): Pope Francis praised the sacrifices of Cuba’s Catholic Church as he visited the home region of communist leaders Fidel and Raul Castro.

Tens of thousands of people braved the tropical heat to attend an open-air mass by the first Latin American pope, whose role in brokering the thaw in relations between Cuba and the United States has made him 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,” he told the packed square in the eastern city of Holguin, his second stop in an eight-day, six-city tour that will also take him to the US.

Cuba’s church has slowly gained a prominent role in social welfare programmes 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.

The pope met Fidel Castro, 89, at his home in Havana on Sunday, before holding a closed-door meeting with Raul, 84, at the government headquarters.

But the church struggles to recruit clergy in a country where 10 per cent of the population describes itself as Catholic. Half the island’s priests are foreigners. It also relies heavily on donations from abroad.

Among the people gathered in Holguin, hundreds had made a seven-hour trek by bus from the eastern province of Guantanamo, the site of the US naval base and detention centre that is one of the most delicate issues in ongoing negotiations between Cuba and the US.

Cuba has long called for the return of the base, which the US rents for $4,085 a month under a permanent lease granted in a 1903 treaty.

“We want to ask the pope for peace, tranquillity, unity around the world and to help us get back the base,” 54-year-old builder Noel Perez from the town of Caimanera near the base said.

“Francis is the third pope to visit us in Cuba, but the first Latin American, and he can help us get back the base,” Norales Mendoza, 45, from Arroyo Hondo de Paraguay in Guantanamo province said.

After his seven-hour stop in Holguin, he takes off for Santiago, the country’s second city — dubbed “the heroic city” by the communist regime because Fidel Castro declared there on Jan 1, 1959, that his revolution had toppled dictator Fulgencio Batista.

The pope will leave Santiago on Tuesday for the US, where his itinerary includes stops at the White House, the Congress and the United Nations General Assembly.

Published in Dawn, September 22nd , 2015

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