SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: After Mexico, the pope heads to Cuba. It'll be the first papal visit to that island since John Paul II's historic trip in 1998. Two outdoor public Masses will give Pope Benedict a chance to address the Cuban people.

And as Nick Miroff reports from Havana, the competing sides in Cuba's long political conflict will be looking for a little sympathy.

NICK MIROFF, BYLINE: The preparations for Pope Benedict's three-day visit have produced some unusual sights and sounds in Cuba lately.

(SOUNDBITE OF A MAN SPEAKING THROUGH A MEGAPHONE)

MIROFF: On a recent weeknight, a church van with a megaphone drove around this Havana neighborhood, calling Cubans out of their homes to a gathering in a nearby park, with the message that God loves them. The number of church-going Catholics on the island is growing again, but remains fewer than 10 percent, and this was a rare exception to the communist government's ban on public acts of religious proselytism.

(SOUNDBITE OF A MAN SPEAKING THROUGH A MEGAPHONE)

MIROFF: Pope Benedict will lead an outdoor Mass on March 28th in Havana's huge Plaza of the Revolution. And workers there have been building a special stage under the smoldering gaze of Che Guevara, whose likeness stares down from the side of government offices.

Cuba has come a long way from the religious persecutions of the past, but the church is still not allowed to have its own schools or television channel. Still, church spokesman Orlando Marquez says the pope's visit is a clear show of support for its growing role as an advocate for greater freedom and as a mediator in Cuba's political divisions.

ORLANDO MARQUEZ: Among all the countries that he could visit, he decided to come to Cuba and Mexico. Cuba, as a tradition is a Catholic country, but it's not a huge Catholic country compared to Mexico or Brazil. Nevertheless, he decided to come to be with Catholic Cubans and also with the Cuban people in this special moment in our history.

MIROFF: Jesuit-educated Raul Castro has shown an even greater willingness than his brother to let the church back into Cuba's public affairs. Catholic leaders have gently pushed the government to open the economy and political system, and have secured the release of scores of political prisoners.

Berta Soler, the leader of the Ladies in White dissident group, says she expects the pope to make a strong statement for human rights and freedom, but says the government will manipulate Benedict for its own political gains.

BERTA SOLER: (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: What I can tell you is that the Cuban people need freedom, Soler said, and the Holy Father can't bring freedom to Cuba. Only the Cuban people can do that.

Soler's group has asked for a meeting with the pope. Other Castro opponents have been more insistent, staging protests in churches or urging Benedict to cancel his visit.

Unlike John Paul II, Benedict's is something of a mystery here, and everyone seems to be expecting something from him. The government wants a condemnation of the U.S. embargo. American officials and Cuban dissidents want him to criticize communist authorities. As for ordinary Cubans, it's more difficult to decipher.

(SOUNDBITE OF A PRAYER)

MIROFF: On a recent night in Havana's blue-collar Cotorro neighborhood, worshippers staged a Via Crucis procession, carrying a cross through the streets to mark Jesus' final moments. Fifty-five-year-old Barbara Rodriguez said she'd never seen such a thing in her lifetime.

BARBAR RODRIQUEZ: (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: We're in the streets, worshipping God freely, and that's a milestone for us Catholics, Rodriquez said.

Benedict will arrive from Mexico to eastern Cuba on March 26th for a large mass there. He'll visit the shrine of Cuba's patron saint the following day, then travel to Havana for a private meeting with Raul Castro. Vatican officials say that if Fidel Castro wants to see the pope as well, Benedict will be available.

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

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