Pope prays for freedom, 'renewal' in Cuba

By Peter Orsi

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, March 27 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

The pope pointedly referred to the Virgin by her popular name, La Mambisa, in a gesture to the many non-Catholics on the island who nonetheless venerate the statue as an Afro-Cuban deity. Mambisa is the word for the Cuban fighters who won independence from Spain at the turn of the last century.

In subtle ways, the pope has acknowledged a lack of faith in the island nation, and tried to make his trip appealing to potential believers. The visit is timed to the 400th anniversary of the appearance of the statue of the Virgin to two fishermen and an African slave in Cuba's Bay of Hipe.

Dunia Felipillo, 45, said she was proud to see the pope praying before the Virgin of Charity, even though she herself was not Catholic.

"We all ask favors of la Cachita," she said, using the Cuban slang for the Virgin, as she watched the ceremony on TV from the lobby of a Santiago hotel.

Benedict's frequent references to the Virgin also highlighted what the church shares with Cuba's nonreligious population, in contrast to his views that would spark more opposition, such as the church's position on divorce and abortion and his strong comments against Marxism.

Benedict has emphasized devotion to Mary throughout his Latin America trip, also making frequent reference to Our Lady of Guadalupe earlier in Mexico. But he has also warned the faithful in the past not to overdo it and forget that Christianity is about Christ.

Meanwhile, dissidents on the island say they still don't know the man who yelled "Down with the Revolution! Down with the dictatorship!" before the pope's Mass on Monday in Santiago.

Security agents hustled him away. Video of the incident showed him being slapped by another man wearing the uniform of a first-aid worker before security agents separated them.

"We do not know his name or his whereabouts, only that it was somewhat violent," said Elizardo Sanchez, head of a group that monitors detentions of government opponents.

He urged Cuban authorities, who have not commented on the incident, to identify the man.

Benedict seemed to walk with renewed vigor Tuesday as he greeted officials and clergy when his plane arrived in Havana. The previous evening, his spokesman acknowledged that the pope was fatigued from days of traveling in Mexico.

He was greeted on the tarmac by clergy, government officials and children who played music, danced and offered him flowers.

Ana Blanco, a 47-year-old Havana resident complained about people being told to attend a papal Mass on Wednesday in Havana, saying the pressure seemed odd in a country that in her early years taught her religion was wrong.

"Now there's this visit by the pope, and I don't agree with giving it so much importance or making anyone go to the Mass or other activities," the office worker said. "Before it was bad, now it's good. That creates confusion."

Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski, who led a pilgrimage of about 300 mostly Cuban-Americans to the island for Benedict's visit, got a sustained standing ovation Tuesday when he gave a homily in a Havana cathedral packed mostly with Floridians. Wenski called for increased respect for human rights and political change on the island, while also warning against unbridled capitalism.

"The pope and the Cuban Church want a transition that is dignified for the human being, dignified for Cubans," he said in Spanish, repeating a theme he has spoken on in recent weeks. "The church wants a soft landing ... and a future of hope."

A Cuban exile group launched a flotilla of boats to park in international waters a little over 12 miles (20 kilometers) off Havana and set off fireworks to welcome the pope.

Havana has bristled at similar demonstrations in the past, calling them provocative acts that seek to violate its sovereignty.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, in Havana receiving radiation treatment for cancer, sent his greetings to Benedict, but said there was no plan to meet with the pope: "They have their agenda. I'm not going to be interfering at all."

Associated Press writer Peter Orsi reported this story in Havana and Andrea Rodriguez reported in Santiago. AP writers Paul Haven, Vivian Sequera, Anne-Marie Garcia and Laura Wides-Munoz in Havana and Nicole Winfield in Santiago contributed to this report. Follow AP reporters covering the pope: www.twitter.com/(hashtag)!/AP/pope-visit.

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