World

Pope Francis arrives in Havana with call for diplomacy

Pope Francis hailed détente between the United States and Cuba as a model of reconciliation for the world, urging Barack Obama and Raul Castro to persevere in building normal ties as the pontiff launched a 10-day tour of the former Cold War foes Saturday.

Pontiff calls U.S.-Cuba détente, which he mediated, a model for the world

Pope Francis shakes hands with Cuban President Raul Castro during his arrival ceremony at the airport in Havana on Saturday, the first stop on his nine-day trip to Cuba and the United States. (Ismael Francisco/Cubadebate/AP)

Pope Francis hailed détente between the United States and Cuba as a model of reconciliation for the world, urging Barack Obama and Raul Castro to persevere in building normal ties as the pontiff launched a 10-day tour of the former Cold War foes Saturday.

Francis's surprisingly direct call for progress toward normalization came after weeks of Vatican assurances that he would not explicitly address politics during his pastoral trip to Cuba and the United States. He served as mediator and guarantor of 18 months of secret negotiations that led to the resumption of diplomatic relations between the two countries this year.

"For some months now, we have witnessed an event which fills us with hope: the process of normalizing relations between two peoples following years of estrangement," Francis said in a speech on the tarmac of José Marti International Airport.

"I urge political leaders to persevere on this path and to develop all its potentialities as a proof of the high service which they are called to carry out on behalf of the peace and well-being of their peoples, of all America, and as an example of reconciliation for the entire world."

Francis extended his greetings to Raul's brother Fidel, with whom Francis is expected to meet as early as Sunday. He also said he wanted his greeting "to embrace especially all those who, for various reasons, I will not be able to meet" — a possible nod to political dissidents as well as ordinary Cubans across the island.

After being greeted at the airport by Raul Castro, Francis was due to rest for the remainder of the day ahead of his first big Mass on Sunday in Havana's Revolution Square, an official meeting with the Cuban president, a vespers service and his first encounter with Cuba's young people.

Like the last two popes to visit Cuba, Francis has no meetings with dissidents on his official schedule and his speeches here are being closely watched for their handling of two delicate and related topics: human rights in Cuba and the church's freedom to operate in the officially agnostic, communist state.

A prayer for Cuba

Francis didn't explicitly mention human rights in his speech but said he would pray to Cuba's patron saint, the Virgin of Charity of El Cobre, "for all her Cuban children and for this beloved nation, that it may travel the paths of justice, peace, liberty and reconciliation."

While he made no reference to the church's desire to be allowed to operate religious schools and broadcast on state-run television and radio, he said his trip was to help the church "support and encourage the Cuban people in its hopes and concerns, with the freedom, the means and the space needed to bring the proclamation of the Kingdom to the existential peripheries of society."

Francis is the third pontiff to visit Cuba in 17 years — a remarkable record for any country, much less one with such a small observantly Catholic community.

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      And he will join three of his predecessors in grabbing the world stage at the United Nations to press his agenda on migration, the environment and religious persecution while over 100 world leaders listen in.

      It's largely unknown territory for the 78-year-old Argentine Jesuit, who has never visited either country and confessed that the United States was so foreign to him that he would spend the summer reading up on it. His popularity ratings are high in the U.S., but he also has gained detractors, particularly among conservatives over his critiques of the excesses of capitalism.

      That has endeared him to Raul Castro, who vowed earlier this year that if Francis kept it up, he would return to the Catholic Church.

      But Francis has also been on record criticizing Cuba's socialist — and atheist — revolution as denying individuals their "transcendent dignity."

      The Cuban government launched a citywide effort to bring crowds into the streets of the capital, offering a day's pay, snacks and transportation to state workers to gather along the pope's route from the airport to the papal ambassador's home. University students were also recruited to turn out.

      The Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, said the Holy See hopes the rapprochement will soon be followed by the removal of the U.S. embargo, which the Vatican has long opposed. On Friday, the United States eased rules for U.S. citizens wishing to travel to Cuba and simplified procedures for telephone and Internet investments and money transfers to Cuba.

      Asked whether Francis would meet with dissidents or speak out about their plight while in Cuba, the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said the issue could come up in private discussions between Francis and Raul Castro, and their respective secretaries of state.

      A street sweeper walks near a sign with a photograph of Pope Francis in Havana on Saturday ahead of the pontiff's arrival. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)

      Francis will travel to the eastern Cuban city of Santiago to pray at the sanctuary of Cuba's patron saint and stop in the city of Holguin en route, demonstrating once again his desire to visit the most peripheral of places that often get overlooked.]

      Francis arrives in Washington on Sept. 22 for the start of the U.S. leg of his trip, greeted at Andrews Air Force Base by the first family.

      The U.S. visit, planned well before the Cuban stop was added on, will be notable for the centre stage Francis is placing on Hispanics, who make up about 38 per cent of adult Catholics in the U.S., according to the CARA research centre at Georgetown University.

      Francis will deliver the vast majority of his speeches in his native Spanish, even though he speaks very good English. He will meet with immigrants on several occasions and bless a wooden cross particularly important to the Hispanic faithful.

      Contentious missionary to be canonized

      His canonization of the Spanish-born Junipero Serra, who built missions across California in the 18th century, is aimed at giving today's Latino Catholics a role model even though Native Americans have opposed the canonization and argued he helped wipe out indigenous populations.

      Most importantly, Francis is expected to make immigration one of the major themes of the visit. Francis has called for countries to be more welcoming of migrants seeking a better life for themselves and decried in particular the plight of would-be migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border— signalling he has no qualms about wading into a politically charged issue in the U.S. presidential campaign.

      A man sweeps the floor inside the church Jesus of Miramar in Havana, Cuba, on Saturday. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)

      Another hot-button issue Francis will raise is religious liberty, following the legalization of gay marriage across the country and continued opposition by the U.S. church to the birth control coverage requirement in the Obama administration's health-care plan.

      For Francis, though, religious liberty also means denouncing the persecution of Christians by Islamic extremists in the Mideast and Africa.

      Technically, the real reason for the trip is for Francis to participate in the church's World Meeting of Families, a big Catholic rally in Philadelphia to reinforce church teaching on marriage.

      He will affirm our heritage and in doing that he'll also remind us of the moral imperative to live up to that.- Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York 

      Traditional family values are expected to be high on the agenda, especially since the Philadelphia event amounts to the opening act of a major and contentious meeting of the world's bishops on family issues — including gays and divorcees — that gets underway a week after Francis returns to Rome.

      The archbishop of New York, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, said he expected Francis would do what his predecessors have done on their trips to the U.S.: remind America of its greatness, of its long history of welcoming foreigners and of the freedoms, first sketched out in Philadelphia, that formed the foundation of American democracy and society.

      "He will remind of us our nobility," Dolan said in a recent interview in the New York City archdiocese. "He will affirm our heritage and in doing that he'll also remind us of the moral imperative to live up to that."

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