SANTIAGO, Cuba (Reuters) - Pope Benedict on Tuesday urged Cubans to “work for justice” during a ceremony to pay homage to the island’s patron saint, and said he was close to those “deprived of freedom,” an apparent reference to political prisoners in the communist-run nation.
A steel band played “Ave Maria” and onlookers waved Cuban flags as the pontiff visited a basilica housing the doll-sized figurine of the Virgin of Charity of El Cobre on the second day of a papal trip the Roman Catholic Church hopes will foster renewed faith and increase its influence in Cuba.
Benedict was to fly from eastern Cuba to Havana after what the Church calls his “pilgrimage” to the Virgin for a meeting on Tuesday afternoon with President Raul Castro and possibly his older brother, former leader Fidel Castro.
He was to give a public Mass on Wednesday before returning home from the second papal visit in history to the Caribbean island. Pope John Paul II came to Cuba in 1998 on a landmark trip that helped improve long-troubled Church-state relations.
Cuba is marking the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the icon of the Virgin, an important figure for both the Church and Santeria, the Afro-Cuban religion that is a legacy of Cuba’s slavery era and which knows her as Ochun, the goddess of love.
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Found floating in a bay in 1612 by fishermen, the icon was revered by Cuba’s independence heroes and is enshrined at the basilica in the town of El Cobre in the foothills of the Sierra Maestra mountains from which Fidel Castro and Ernesto “Che” Guevara staged the 1959 Cuban revolution.
Thousands of Cubans of all denominations go to the shrine each year to pay tribute to the Virgin, to whom they have left an array of offerings, from signed baseballs and judo medals to bags of human hair and letters, seeking miracles and blessings.
Longtime Cuban resident Ernest Hemingway donated his 1954 Nobel Literature Prize to the icon, but the medallion has been stored away since it was briefly stolen in the 1980s.
The pope was inspired to visit after he saw images of a procession around the island last year of a replica of the figurine, also known as the Mambisa Virgin, that drew hundreds of thousands of people.
“I have entrusted to the Mother of God the future of your country, advancing along the ways renewal and hope, for the greater good of all Cubans,” the pope said after praying in front of the gold-swathed wooden figure of Virgin and child.
He urged Cubans to “work for justice, to be servants of charity and to persevere in the midst of trials,” and offered a prayer to the Virgin “for the needs of those who suffer, of those who are deprived of freedom, those who are separated from their loved ones,” he added, in a clear reference to political prisoners as well as Cuban exiles.
Cuba has a history of jailing or harassing government opponents, who it views as mercenaries in the pay of the United States, its long-time ideological foe.
Castro released 130 political prisoners in a 2010 deal brokered with the Church, but dissidents say close to 50 are currently behind bars.
After arriving in Santiago on Monday from Mexico to start his first trip to Cuba, the 84-year-old pope celebrated an open-air Mass for tens of thousands of people in the city’s Revolution Square, and urged Cubans to build a better, “renewed and open society”.
While he made thinly veiled references to Cuba’s human rights record, he appeared to ease off after saying just days earlier that communism in Cuba no longer worked and a new economic model was needed.
“The government needs to loosen its grip on power,” said 80-year-old Belkis Ivonnet Lopez, as she watched Monday’s Mass in Santiago. “We lived very well before the revolution. No one was hungry, everyone had everything they needed. ... But that’s not the case now; everything is very expensive. Life was better before.”
Some ordinary Cubans disagree, and say they want Cuba to remain communist.
“I hope the pope’s visit brings peace and helps ... to end the blockade the United States has unjustly imposed,” said Juana Niris Perez, 55, a waitress at a hotel in Santiago.
“The model here should not be changed. Other countries should follow the Cuban example,” she added, extolling the island’s free education and healthcare.
President Castro has steadily improved relations with the Church, using it as an interlocutor on issues such as political prisoners and dissidents, while moving forward with reforms to Cuba’s struggling Soviet-style economy.
They include slashing a million government jobs and opening up some sectors to small-scale private enterprise. The Church has urged Castro to move further and faster to modernize Cuba, both economically and politically.
Castro showed deference to the pope at Monday’s Mass, walking up steps to take his hand and inclining his head.
Church officials say Benedict’s schedule in Cuba has not allowed for meetings with dissidents, who say Castro’s government flouts human rights and suppresses their voices.
Additional reporting by Nelson Acosta; Writing by Simon Gardner; Editing by Jeff Franks and David Adams; Desking by Eric Walsh