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Pope Uses Cuba Trip to Press for Freedom

In between the massive public events that marked his trip to Cuba this week, Pope Benedict XVI skillfully used the visit to intercede for the faithful in a variety of ways, from asking Cuban President Raul Castro to reinstate Good Friday as a holiday to pleading for the release of political prisoners.

When he arrived at Jose Marti airport in Havana on Tuesday, the pope told the people that he was praying for a Cuba that was "advancing along the ways of renewal and hope."

Shortly afterward, he was whisked away to the historic Palacio de la Recolucion, home of the Cuban president and the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist party, where he paid a courtesy visit to President Raul Castro. Holy See Press Office Director Fr. Federico Lombardi S.J. described the meeting as being long and cordial and said their discussions focused on the condition of the Cuban people, including humanitarian issues and the Church’s expectations in her service of the common good. The Pope also made a specific request for Good Friday to be re-established as a holiday.

During the same meeting, the Pope made a "humanitarian request" of Castro, which concerned the release of political prisoners and, specifically, Alan Gross, a U.S. contractor jailed in 2009 on charges of crimes against the communist state, although details are not being released.

Benedict's meeting with Raul's older brother, Fidel, was equally low-keyed with the former president asking questions about the changes in the liturgy after the Second Vatican Council and about the pope's thinking on the larger philosophical issues of the day.

Fr. Lombardi said Castro's questions seemed to indicate that his life was now "one dedicated to reflection and writing."

"In the end, Commandante Fidel asked the pope to send him a few books" dealing with the questions he had, the spokesman said.

More than 700,000 Cubans filled Revolution Square for a Papal Mass, including the president, and heard the pope issue a call for change.

"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. "The truth is a desire of the human person, the search for which always supposes the exercise of authentic freedom."

After hailing the Cuban government's granting of freedom of religion since his predecessor's visit in 1998, Benedict also said Cubans' quests for truth generally should also respect "the inviolable dignity of the human person."

But behind the scenes, dissidents say the Cuban government was engaged in a fierce campaign to keep a tight rein on the papal visit.

Tweets sent out during the visit by famed Cuban dissident Yoani Sanchez, using the hashtag #PapaCuba, gave a chilling glimpse into life under a communist regime.

"There are many activists prevented from leaving their homes. Surrounded by political police # PapaCuba," Yoani tweeted.

"The arrests are intended to prevent activists and dissidents from entering the mass # PapaCuba."

"While the people are coming into the Square for Mass #PapaCuba arrests increased night and early morning."

Cuban officials say political reform was not on the agenda for this visit.

Marino Murillo, one of Castro's vice-presidents and the "economics czar" in charge of liberalization, told journalists the government was updating the Cuban economic model to make socialism sustainable.

"There will be no political reform in Cuba," he said.

However, this did not stop the pope from calling for change. 

"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 during his homily in Revolution Square.

"Nonetheless, this must continue forwards, and I wish to encourage the country’s Government authorities to strengthen what has already been achieved and advance along this path of genuine service to the true good of Cuban society as a whole."

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