Latin America & Caribbean

Thousands of Cubans attend Pope Benedict's Havana Mass

Hundreds of thousands of Cubans have gathered to see Pope Benedict XVI celebrate an open-air Mass in Havana's Revolution Square on the last day of his visit to the island.

In his sermon, the Pope urged Cubans to search for "authentic freedom".

As he left, he also criticised the US trade embargo, saying the restrictions "unfairly burden" the people of Cuba.

Pope Benedict also held a 30-minute meeting with the revolutionary leader and former president, Fidel Castro.

Fidel Castro, who also met Pope John Paul II when he visited the island in 1998, had requested a few minutes with Pope Benedict.

The meeting was described by a Vatican spokesman as "animated and cordial", the BBC's Sarah Rainsford in Havana reports, with the two men even sharing a joke about their ages.

The discussion was reportedly wide-ranging, with Mr Castro asking Pope Benedict about Church liturgy, but it does not appear that the Pope directly raised the political questions that he has been addressing in his sermons, our correspondent says.

'Deprived of freedom'

Fidel Castro's younger brother, President Raul Castro, sat in the front row during the Revolution Square Mass.

Hours before the service began crowds of worshippers started to arrive in the plaza waving flags to welcome the pontiff.

When he arrived the Pope was introduced to chants of "Viva Cuba! Viva el Papa!"

One of the many Cubans there, Carlos Herrera, told the Reuters news agency: "I come to hear his words, wise words for Cuban people. That helps us. It gives us unity."

Others suggested they were only there because they had been told to go by their employers or teachers and left before the sermon began.

One man, Roberto, told the AP news agency, "I came to do what my teacher said. I checked in, and I'm leaving."

The Pope's sermon expanded on the theme that Cuba should build a more open society, based on truth, justice and reconciliation.

Later, he denounced the 50-year-old US trade embargo on Cuba, saying such "restrictive economic measures imposed from outside the country unfairly burden its people".

During the three-day visit some activists have urged greater intervention from the Church to promote human rights.

Image caption Fidel Castro asked to meet the Pope

When the Pope visited the eastern city of Santiago, he said he had prayed for "the needs of those who suffer, of those who are deprived of freedom, those who are separated from their loved ones".

And when he met President Raul Castro, the pontiff pushed for a bigger role for the Church and asked for Good Friday to be made a national holiday.

Before he arrived in Cuba, the pontiff had expressed concern that communism "does not correspond with reality" and a belief that Cuba needed to find a new economic model.

But he has no plans to meet members of the Cuban opposition, some of whom were barred from leaving their homes ahead of the Pope's visit.

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