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    Fidel Castro confirms he will meet with the pope

    Posted on Tuesday, 03.27.12

    Fidel Castro confirms he will meet with the pope
    Associated Press

    HAVANA -- Pope Benedict XVI prayed for freedom and renewal "for the
    greater good of all Cubans" before the nation's patron saint Tuesday,
    but the island's communist leaders quickly rejected the Roman Catholic
    leader's appeal for political change after five decades of one-party rule.

    The exchange came hours before Fidel Castro confirmed that he would
    happily meet with Benedict before he leaves for Rome on Wednesday.
    Castro made the much-awaited announcement at the end of a short opinion
    piece posted on a government website late Tuesday, saying he had decided
    to ask for "a few minutes of his busy time."

    Expectations of a meeting have dominated Benedict's three-day visit to
    Cuba, which culminates with a morning Mass in Havana's Revolution Plaza.

    On Tuesday, Benedict had a 55-minute closed-door meeting with Fidel's
    brother, President Raul Castro, in which the pontiff proposed that Good
    Friday, when Catholics commemorate the death of Christ, be made a holiday.

    There was no immediate response. The Vatican spokesman, the Rev.
    Federico Lombardi, said it was natural for the government to take time
    to consider such a request, which followed on the Cuban government's
    decision to declare Christmas a national holiday after Pope John Paul
    II's 1998 visit.

    "It's not that it changes reality in a revolutionary way, but it can be
    a sign of a positive step - as was the case of Christmas after John
    Paul's visit," Lombardi said.

    Asked if the pope raised the matter of political prisoners or Alan
    Gross, a U.S. government subcontractor sentenced to 15 years in prison
    in Cuba on spy charges, Lombardi said "requests of a humanitarian
    nature" came up, but he had no information about whether individual
    cases were discussed.

    Benedict spent nearly twice as long with Castro as he normally does with
    heads of state, which Lombardi attributed to the pontiff's desire to get
    to know the man.

    Days after dismissing the Marxist ideology on which the Cuban system is
    based, Benedict continued to gently press themes highly sensitive to
    Cuban government in his prayer and short speech at the sanctuary of the
    Virgin of Charity of Cobre near the eastern city of Santiago.

    "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. "I have also prayed 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 or who are undergoing times of

    It wasn't long before a top official back in Havana responded.

    "In Cuba, there will not be political reform," said Marino Murillo,
    Cuba's economic czar and a vice president.

    The pope has kept his language lofty, his criticism vague and open to
    interpretation, but Murillo's comments left no room for doubt, and they
    were quickly picked up by pro-government blogs and on Twitter accounts.

    Raul Castro has said that opening up Cuba's political system would
    inevitably spell doom for its socialist project since any alternative
    party would be dominated by enemies across the Florida Straits and beyond.

    Alfredo Mesa, a Cuban-American National Foundation board member whose
    trip to Cuba was organized by the Miami Archdiocese, said the
    government's strong reaction would reinforce the pope's message and the
    need for change.

    "I'd rather have them say this now than tomorrow," Mesa said.