HAVANA — Pope Benedict XVI demanded greater freedom for the Catholic Church in Cuba during Mass before hundreds of thousands of people Wednesday in the shrine of the island's communist revolution, denouncing "fanaticism" that tries to impose its truth on others.
Benedict's unusually politicized homily was a not-so-subtle jab at Cuba's leadership before a vast crowd in Revolution Plaza. But he also used plain language to urge an end to Cuba's isolation, a reference to the 50-year U.S. economic embargo and the inability of 11 American presidents and brothers Fidel and Raul Castro to forge peace.
"Cuba and the world need change, but this will occur only if each one is in a position to seek the truth and chooses the way of love, sowing reconciliation and fraternity," he said.
With the country's leadership listening from front-row seats, Benedict issued his strongest denunciation of religious intolerance yet in Cuba, referring to the Biblical account of how people persecuted by the Babylonian king "preferred to face death by fire rather than betray their conscience and their faith."
He said people find freedom when they seek the truth that Christianity offers.
"On the other hand there are those who wrongly interpret this search for the truth, leading them to irrationality and fanaticism; they close themselves up in 'their truth' and try to impose it on others," he said from the altar in the shadow of the image of Cuba's revolution hero Ernesto "Che" Guevara.
While he did not mention the government by name, the comments were an unmistakable criticism of the Cuban reality, said the Rev. Joseph Fessio, a former student of Benedict. As his U.S. publisher, Fessio knows well the pope's message and how he transmits it, particularly the watchwords of his pontificate: truth and freedom.
"Does anyone in Cuba not know how the words themselves condemn the reality there?" Fessio said in an email.
Shortly after the Mass, Benedict met for about half an hour with Fidel Castro, a Jesuit-educated altar boy-turned-revolutionary leader whose 1998 hosting of Pope John Paul II marked a turning point in the church's relations with Cuba.
How much the pope's message resonated with ordinary Cubans in the plaza or those listening on state-television is unclear. Many in the crowd had trouble hearing him over the loudspeakers, and others said it was hard to understand the dense Biblical message delivered by the pope in a soft voice.
"I don't understand this Mass at all. I don't have an education in these things and I know nothing about religion," said Mario Mendez, a 19-year-old communications student. "On top of that, I can't hear anything."
Benedict didn't cite the government by name, but later in his homily urged Cuban authorities to let the church more freely preach its message and educate its young in the faith in schools and universities — something that has been forbidden since the Castros came to power a half-century ago.
"It must be said with joy that in Cuba steps have been taken to enable the church to carry out her essential mission of expressing her faith openly and publicly," he said. "Nonetheless this must continue forward" for the good of Cuban society.
Cubans waving flags and banners large and small filled Revolution Plaza for the morning Mass, shielding themselves from the blistering sun with umbrellas as Benedict passed by in his white popemobile. President Raul Castro and leading Cabinet officials wore white, formal guayabera shirts, and Raul later climbed the steps to the altar and shook Benedict's hand.
"Viva Cuba! Viva el Papa!" the announcers shouted.
"The pope is something big for Cubans," said Carlos Herrera, a tourism worker who came to the plaza with his wife. "I come to hear his words, wise words for the Cuban people. That helps us. It gives us peace, it gives us unity. We do not want war."
But others said they were told to attend by their employers in a country where mass shows of support for Fidel have long been a mainstay of his half-century revolution. The plaza holds 600,000 people and appeared nearly full, though many Cubans drifted off after registering their presence with teachers and employers.
"We came with our class group and we are leaving because I can't handle any more," said a student who only gave his first name, Roberto, for fear he could get in trouble. "I came to do what my teacher said. I checked in, and I'm leaving."
In the days leading up to the pope's visit, some Cubans had said they resented that the government was now telling them to attend the Mass, despite preaching atheism until the early 1990s and remaining skeptical about the church's role in society.
Ahead of the Mass, dissident blogs and Twitter accounts carried allegations that members of the Ladies in White opposition group had been prevented from attending, and that some opposition leaders were detained, reports that were reiterated by Amnesty International.
Later, an Associated Press journalist saw a man in the crowd being briskly led away by people in civilian clothing after he shouted "Pope, don't leave until communism falls!" It was not clear who he was or where he was taken. The incident was similar to another during the pope's Mass in Santiago Monday, when a man shouted anti-government slogans before being hustled away.
Elizardo Sanchez, who monitors human rights on the island and acts as a de facto spokesman for the opposition, said he could not confirm any detentions because his mobile phone hadn't worked since shortly after the pope arrived on Monday. It was an experience shared by many other islanders and foreign journalists who could not make calls on jammed lines.
John Paul's shadow has loomed large over the trip, especially his remarks upon arrival at Havana's airport in 1998 saying Cuba should "open itself up to the world, and may the world open itself up to Cuba."
Benedict took that famous exhortation for openness one step further Wednesday by saying "Cuba and the world need change."
A huge poster of Cuba's patron saint, the Virgin of Charity of Cobre, covered the facade of one of the buildings facing the plaza near Che. The icon has been the spiritual focus of Benedict's three-day trip, timed to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the appearance of the diminutive statue.
Benedict visited the statue in a sanctuary near the eastern city of Santiago on Tuesday morning and prayed to her for greater freedom and renewal for all Cubans — another gentle nudge to the government to continue opening itself up to greater reforms.
A top official in Havana quickly responded: "In Cuba, there will not be political reform," said Marino Murillo, Cuba's economic czar.
During a nearly hour-long meeting Tuesday with Raul Castro — twice the normal length of papal audiences with heads of state — Benedict asked that the government declare a holiday for Good Friday, when Catholics commemorate the death of Christ.Comment on this story
The request, like so much of this trip, was a follow-up of sorts to Cuba's decision to declare Christmas a national holiday in honor of John Paul's 1998 visit. Cubans hadn't had Christmas off for nearly 30 years.
The government didn't give an immediate response.
The date is not a holiday in the United States or much of Europe, including Italy or devoutly Catholic Poland, but is in many Latin American countries.
Associated Press writers Peter Orsi, Vivian Sequera, Anne-Marie Garcia and Laura Wides-Munoz contributed to this report.
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