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

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.

The Obama administration said Wednesday it had asked Benedict to raise the case of American contractor Alan Gross, jailed on suspicion of espionage. "We obviously are hopeful that the pope will continue to be strong on all of the human rights issues in Cuba, religious freedom, and it would be a very, very good thing if the Cuban government were to take this opportunity to release Alan Gross," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.

Gross is serving a 15-year prison sentence stemming from his work importing communications equipment onto the island under a USAID-funded democracy-building program. Cuba considers such programs to be attempts against its sovereignty.

During the Mass, a huge poster of Cuba's patron saint, the Virgin of Charity of Cobre, covered the facade of a building facing the plaza. The icon has been the spiritual focus of Benedict's three-day trip, timed to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the appearance of a statue of the Virgin to two fishermen and an African slave in waters off Cuba.

Associated Press writers Peter Orsi, Vivian Sequera, Anne-Marie Garcia and Paul Haven contributed to this report. Follow AP reporters covering the pope: www.twitter.com/AP/pope-visit.

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