HAVANA Cuban President Raul Castro attended a ceremony for the country's first religious beatification on Saturday in another sign of warming relations between the Communist-ruled island and the Catholic Church.
Dressed in a dark suit, Castro sat in the first row at the mass conducted with a Vatican envoy for Father Jose Olallo, the first Cuban to receive such honors on the island in its more than 500 years of Catholic history.
After Fidel Castro came to power in an armed revolution in 1959, Cuba expelled priests and Catholics faced decades of official atheism. Ties improved after Cuba guaranteed religious freedom in 1992 and Pope John Paul II visited six years later.
Cuban state-run television showed several thousand people packed into a plaza in Camaguey, around 330 miles from Havana, for the ceremony for Olallo, who worked with cholera sufferers and died in 1889.
Raul Castro took over governing Cuba in 2006 when his brother fell ill. He was made president in February and has since begun introducing reforms, such as allowing Cubans for the first time to buy cell phones and computers.
Catholic beatification is the third of the four steps to sainthood. In a rare move, the state-run newspaper Granma dedicated the front page of its Friday edition to Olallo's recognition by the Church.
In 2007, the Pope beatified another priest born in Cuba, but he was raised and died in Spain.
The Vatican said in February Pope Benedict would like to visit Cuba at the invitation of Raul Castro and his ailing brother. The Pontiff's top aide was the first foreign official to meet Raul Castro when he become president.
(Reporting by Patrick Markey in Havana, editing by Vicki Allen)