Latin America & Caribbean

Pope Benedict meets President Raul Castro in Havana

Pope Benedict has met Cuban President Raul Castro on the second day of his visit to the communist-run island.

Meanwhile, former President Fidel Castro has written that he is "happy" to meet the pope, in an article on the government's website.

After arriving in the capital, Havana, the pope told a crowd he prayed for a Cuba "advancing along the ways of renewal and hope".

Cuban officials have insisted that political reform is not on the agenda.

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

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

The pope's visit marks the 400th anniversary of the discovery of a statue of the Virgin of Charity of El Cobre - also known as the Mambisa Virgin - which was found floating in a bay by fishermen. It was revered by Cuba's independence heroes.

Improving relations

Pope Benedict XVI knelt for several minutes before the wooden statue, where he said he had prayed for those who "suffer" and are "deprived of freedom".

"I have entrusted to the Mother of God the future of your country, advancing along the ways of renewal and hope, for the greater good of all Cubans," the pope said.

Later, Pope Benedict held an hour-long closed-door meeting with the leader of the communist country.

No details were released, but brief video feeds showed Raul Castro greeting the pope at the Palace of the Revolution, and later seeing him off.

The BBC's Sarah Rainsford says change and openness are emerging as the themes of the Papal visit to the one-party state, where Roman Catholics now account for 10% of the population.

Image caption Pope Benedict told a crowd at the shrine that he had prayed for those "deprived of freedom"

Observers say relations between Church and state have warmed in Cuba in recent years.

Raul Castro has accepted the Church's mediation on issues such as political prisoners, recognising its position as the most influential organisation outside the communist government.

The Pope's visit is seen as an effort to further improve relations and increase the role of the church in Cuban society at a time of rapid change.

In a short opinion piece on the government's website, Fidel Castro announced he would be happy to meet Pope Benedict, after speculation of a possible meeting.

According to AP, Mr Castro said: "I will happily greet His Excellency Pope Benedict XVI as I did John Paul II, a man for whom contact with children and the humble generated feelings of affection."

The pope is scheduled to leave on Wednesday afternoon after a Mass in Havana's Revolution Plaza.

Our correspondent says that if the pope does meet Fidel Castro, it would be a good further opportunity to discuss the processes of change in Cuba. The pope has said the church is ready to help with those changes.

Church officials have said there is no time in his schedule to meet dissidents.

Opposition groups say dozens of dissidents were detained ahead of the visit, and others were prevented from attending the service in Santiago.

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