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Hundreds of thousands of Cubans from all over this communist-run nation crowded the Plaza of the Revolution on Wednesday to hear Pope Benedict XVI demand more freedom for the Roman Catholic Church and preach against “fanaticism.”
As President Raúl Castro watched from the front row, Benedict focused on the need for Christian love in a country that has been under dictatorship for 50 years and until recently was officially atheist.
He referred to a biblical account of how children persecuted by the Babylonian king preferred to face death by fire rather than betray their faith.
“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.
Benedict said people find freedom when they seek the truth Christianity offers, but the pursuit of truth must be voluntary. “There are those who wrongly interpret this search for the truth, leading them to irrationality and fanaticism. They close themselves up in ‘their truth’ and try to impose it on others,” the pope said from the altar in front of an image of Cuba’s revolutionary hero Ernesto “Che” Guevara, a Marxist who oversaw the execution of scores of political opponents of leader Fidel Castro.
The retired Cuban leader — a onetime altar boy who was educated by Jesuit priests — met with the pope for 30 minutes after Wednesday’s Mass.
Fidel Castro essentially interviewed Benedict, asking him about the changes in church teachings since he was a child, what it’s like to be a pope and the challenges facing humanity, said the Rev. Federico Lombardi, spokesman for the Vatican. Benedict raised issues such as the role of freedom and liberty, Lombardi said.
The meeting began with some jokes about their ages. Fidel Castro is 85, and Benedict will reach that milestone next month. “Yes, I’m old, but I can still do my job,” the pope said, according to Lombardi.
The U.S. State Department said it asked the pope to ask Cuban officials about the case of U.S. contractor Alan Gross, who is serving a 15-year prison sentence for helping Cubans obtain Internet access. The Vatican said the pope made a “humanitarian request” of Raúl Castro but did not say whether specific cases of political prisoners were discussed.
Benedict began his trip Friday in Mexico. He arrived in Cuba on Monday and left Wednesday afternoon to return to Italy.
At the morning’s Mass, banners large and small filled the plaza, and many people took shade under umbrellas as announcers shouted, “Viva Cuba! Viva el Papa!”
“It’s a privilege for this country. We Catholics feel very honored,” said Maira Bisciedo, 60, who, along with three friends, wore white Pope Benedict XVI T-shirts and caps. “I hope there’ll be changes after this visit.”
Antonio Juan, a doctor, said Fidel Castro’s hostility toward the church is in the past, but it is not up to Catholics to change Cuba for the better. “It can’t depend on the pope whether things change more after this,” he said.
He said the Cuban people need improvements, such as in medical care. “We don’t have everything we need in the hospital,” Juan said. “We work but with great difficulty. There’s a lot of things we can’t get hold of because we don’t have resources.”
“The pope is something big for Cubans,” said Carlos Herrera, a tourism worker who came to the plaza with his wife. “I come to hear his words, wise words for the Cuban people. That helps us. It gives us peace, it gives us unity.”
Some Cubans said they were told to attend by their employers. The country is accustomed to organizing mass events, usually meant to show support for Fidel Castro.
The Vatican said the Plaza of the Revolution holds 600,000 people. It appeared nearly full.
Oswaldo Payá, a Nobel Peace Prizenominated activist and a Catholic, said many of his fellow activists who work for human rights and democracy were prevented from attending the Mass.
“The government repressed the arrival at the Mass of them,” he said. “I’m sad about that.”
Payá and other members of the Christian Liberation Movement founded the Varela Project, which collected more than 10,000 signatures from Cubans calling for a national referendum on political and economic change.
During the Mass, a man in the crowd shouted, “Pope, don’t leave until communism falls!” He was led away by men in plainclothes. The incident was similar to another during the pope’s Mass in Santiago on Monday, when a man shouted anti-government slogans before being beaten and hustled away.
“The state controls everything. The pope’s right. We need more independence,” said Jorge Rodríguez, 44, a hospital worker who was eating ice cream in central Havana. Rodríguez said religious freedom opened up a bit after a visit from Pope John Paul II in 1998, but not the economy. “People can own a private bed and breakfast, but the state controls it. I don’t think the visit will change anything,” he said.
Margarita Florez, 32, was selling hot dogs in central Havana and said the pope wasn’t speaking about Cuba in his homily. “He was talking about the entire world needing to find its freedom. I feel free here. I can do what I like. I can walk around at 3 a.m. In other countries, I’d be killed,” she said.
Raul Velascu, 52, who was selling sweets in the street, said the problem with Cuba is the economy. “We have great difficulties with the economy, but education, health is good.”
Contributing: The Associated Press