Pope To Meet With Cuban President Raul Castro

Pope Benedict is in Cuba, Latin America's least Catholic country. He arrived Monday in Santiago, where Cuba's revolution began in 1953. He urged Cubans to seek unity and overcome their divisions, but his message wasn't especially political.

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In Cuba last night, tens of thousands of people crowded the plaza of Santiago de Cuba for mass with Pope Benedict XVI. The pope urged Cubans to seek unity and to overcome their divisions. The pope had arrived in Cuba with a political message, but as Nick Miroff reports from Havana, Pope Benedict seemed to be sidestepping politics yesterday.

NICK MIROFF, BYLINE: Cuban President Raul Castro greeted Benedict at Santiago's airport yesterday afternoon, as the pope arrived after a three-day visit to Mexico. He continued into the city riding in the Popemobile, passing crowds of waving Cubans, and by the evening the city's Antonio Maceo plaza was a festive scene with music and building anticipation for what the pope might say.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MIROFF: Cuban state television carried the event live, and speaking from a large blue and white platform built for the occasion by the Cuban government, Benedict read in Spanish from a written text. The spiritual purpose of Benedict's visit is the 400 year anniversary of Cuba's patron saint, the Virgin of Charity, and Benedict said he had come as a pilgrim.

POPE BENEDICT XVI: (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: Benedict's homily urged Cubans to seek a spiritual path to resolving their problems. He encouraged a return to traditional marriage, and directed his remarks at Cubans both on the island and abroad.

XVI: (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: You must struggle to create an open and rejuvenated society, the pope said, a better society, with more dignity, that better reflects God's good will.

At the outset of his Latin America trip, Benedict told reporters that Cuba's Marxist model no longer corresponds to reality, but he did not directly criticize the Castro government at the mass Monday night. Today he travels to Havana, where he is scheduled to meet with Raul Castro and possibly his brother, though not Cuban dissidents. Benedict may be planning a more politically-oriented message for the outdoor mass he will say Wednesday in Havana, prior to his return to Rome.

For NPR News, I'm Nick Miroff in Havana.

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