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Pope Benedict XVI is headed to Latin America in March. And Vatican officials have announced his travel plans: a visit to Mexico, where nearly 100 million Catholics live, and a less obvious choice; communist-run Cuba. The 84-year-old pope does not travel often. And as Nick Miroff reports from Havana, his visit will be a strong show of support for Cuban church leaders who are pushing for change.

NICK MIROFF, BYLINE: More than anywhere else in Cuba, the Santa Rita Church in Havana's Miramar District is the place where religion and politics intersect.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHOIR HYMN)

MIROFF: Every Sunday after Mass, a few dozen activists known as the Ladies in White march along the street outside in the only act of public protest tolerated by the Castro government.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD)

MIROFF: The origins of Pope Benedict's upcoming trip to Cuba can partly be traced back to here and the spring of 2010 when government-organized mobs attacked the women outside the church as foreign television cameras rolled. Cuba's church leaders intervened. And in the dialogue with Raul Castro that followed, more than 100 jailed dissidents were freed, including all the Cuban inmates considered prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International.

The women's weekly protests and calls for freedom continue today with the church's protection.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING)

MIROFF: Under Raul Castro, Cuba's Catholic Church has recovered a degree of prominence it hasn't had in 50 years. Castro said the island will welcome Benedict with affection and respect, announcing he would pardon nearly 3,000 more prisoners in advance of the pope's visit.

PRESIDENT RAUL CASTRO: (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: This is a demonstration of the strength and generosity of the Cuban revolution, Castro said in a December 23rd speech to Cuba's parliament.

The stated purpose of Benedict's trip is the 400-year anniversary of Cuba's patron saint, La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre. But the visit will also give the Vatican's blessing to this emerging church-state relationship. Orlando Marquez is the spokesman for the Havana Archdiocese.

ORLANDO MARQUEZ: The church has always expressed its support to the changes that are taking place in the country. And the church, what it is saying is that those changes are good. Those are the changes that people want. Those changes must continue. And the Holy See knows that. I think that he also is coming to be together with the church in Cuba, with the Cuban bishops, in this process that we are living right now.

MIROFF: Pope Benedict's visit comes 14 years after his predecessor John Paul II's historic trip to Havana when he met with Fidel Castro and famously urged Cuba to open to the world and for the world to open to Cuba. Today, the island's diplomatic ties to much of the world are stronger, and Cuba receives record numbers of tourists and Cuban-Americans. But relations with the U.S. remain stuck and the 50-year-old trade embargo is still firmly in place.

Roberto Veiga is the editor of Lay Space, a church-published journal that has become a leading forum for economic and political debate on an island where almost all other forms of media are controlled by the state. He says Cuba will continue opening up more, but on its own terms.

ROBERTO VEIGA: (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: The world can guide Cuba and help Cuba along in its transformation. Those who will decide and influence the process directly are Cubans, Veiga said. That includes Cubans on the island and those abroad, but it will be for Cubans to determine.

That has also been the Church's message, as it encourages reconciliation among Cubans and Cuban exiles. With the pope planning to celebrate mass in the public plazas of Havana and Santiago de Cuba, thousands of Cuban-Americans and other U.S. residents may travel back to the island to be there. For NPR News, I'm Nick Miroff in Havana

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