Pope preaches more freedom in Cuba

By Anne-Marie Garcia And Nicole Winfield

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, March 28 2012 9:00 p.m. MDT

During the 30-minute meeting between the pope and Fidel Castro at the Vatican's Embassy, the retired Cuban leader — a one-time altar boy who was educated by Jesuit priests — essentially interviewed Benedict, asking him about the changes in church teachings since he was a child, what it's like to be a pope and the challenges facing humanity today, said the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi.

Benedict, meanwhile, raised issues such as the role of freedom and liberty, Lombardi said.

The meeting began with some jokes about their ages. Castro is 85, Benedict reaches that milestone next month. "Yes, I'm old, but I can still do my job," Lombardi quoted the pope as saying.

Video released later showed Fidel arriving at the embassy wearing a dark warm-up jacket and a scarf. He seemed animated, if unsure on his feet.

"I have felt very good," Castro could be heard telling the pontiff in the choppy footage.

Castro introduced his companion, Dalia Soto del Valle, and two of his children, and asked the pope to send him some books to elaborate on the topics they discussed, Lombardi said. He described the meeting as intense, animated and cordial.

After posing for pictures with his family and the pontiff, Castro left the embassy on an aide's arm and was helped into a silver van.

Benedict later rode in the popemobile along rainy streets lined with onlookers toward the airport, where he bade goodbye to Raul Castro, Catholic bishops and the Cuban people, and again called for reconciliation.

"The present hour urgently demands that in personal, national and international co-existence we reject immovable positions and unilateral viewpoints which tend to make understanding more difficult and efforts at cooperation ineffective," he said.

"Goodbye forever. ... May God bless your future," he concluded.

Castro emphasized points in common between Havana and the Vatican, such as support for families and children, but acknowledged that differences were inevitable.

"We have found many and profound areas of agreement, even if, as is natural, we do not think alike on all matters," he said. Still, "the Cuban people ... have listened with profound attention to each word Your Holiness has offered."

A black car took the pontiff onto the tarmac, where he walked up the stairs, waved briefly and went inside the plane. It took off soon after.

At the morning Mass, banners large and small filled the plaza, and many took shade under umbrellas as announcers shouted "Viva Cuba! Viva el Papa!"

"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 accustomed to organizing mass events, usually meant to show support for Fidel Castro.

The Vatican said the plaza holds 600,000 people and it 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."

During the event, an Associated Press journalist saw a man in the crowd led briskly 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.

Ahead of the Mass, Amnesty International alleged that opposition members had been prevented from attending, and that some were detained.

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