VATICAN CITY (AP) — The Vatican's No. 2 has dismissed suggestions that Cuba's Communist government could exploit Pope Benedict XVI's upcoming trip as a propaganda tool, saying the visit should help promote democracy on the island.
Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican's secretary of state, said he expects an outpouring of support for the pope because he is the head of the Catholic Church and that the visit will only make things better for the Cuban church.
"I don't believe the visit will be exploited by the government," Bertone told the Turin daily La Stampa in an interview published Thursday. "In fact, I think the government and Cuban people will do their utmost to welcome the pope and show him the esteem and trust that the leader of the Catholic Church deserves."
Benedict, 84, leaves Friday for a six-day trip that will take him first to Mexico, then to Cuba on March 26. It's Benedict's first trip to Spanish-speaking Latin America, and Pope John Paul II's shadow will be looming large, given his five visits to Mexico, which claimed the Polish pope as its own, and his historic 1998 trip to Cuba.
For starters, there's the question of a papal meeting with Fidel Castro. When John Paul visited, Castro shed his trademark olive-green fatigues for a suit and tie to greet the pope at the airport and they later met privately.
The 85-year-old revolutionary leader has since been replaced as president by his brother Raul Castro, who will handle the official protocol greetings and meetings this time around. While a Benedict-Fidel meeting isn't on the official agenda, it's widely expected.
Cuba's single-party, Communist government never outlawed religion, but it expelled priests and closed religious schools upon Fidel Castro's takeover of Cuba in 1959. Tensions eased in the early 1990s when the government removed references to atheism in the constitution and let believers of all faiths join the Communist Party.
John Paul's 1998 visit further warmed relations.
But problems remain. Despite years of lobbying, the church has virtually no access to state-run radio or television, is not allowed to administer schools, and has not been granted permission to build new places of worship. The island of 11.2 million has just 361 priests, many of them non-Cubans. Before 1959 there were 700 priests for a population of 6 million.
Bertone cited the school and building bans in the interview, saying it was an issue that had to be resolved.
"But after 14 years (since John Paul's visit) ... there's no doubt that the current visit of Pope Benedict XVI will help the process of development toward democracy and will open new spaces for the church's presence and activity," Bertone was quoted as saying.
In an interview earlier this week with Vatican Radio, Bertone spoke about the Mexico leg of the trip, saying Benedict would be bringing a message of hope particularly to young Mexicans confronting the country's violent drug war.
He said the pope wants to urge young Mexicans to not be discouraged or be taken in by easy ways to make money but to instead "feel committed to making a solid, honest society."
More than 47,000 people have died in drug violence nationwide since President Felipe Calderon began a crackdown on drug cartels in December 2006.
Bertone also voiced opposition to abortion and gay marriage, both of which have been legalized in Mexico City by the leftist Democratic Revolution Party. Bertone said he expects the pope to refer to these issues, repeating the commandment "Thou shalt not kill" and church teaching that says marriage exists solely between man and woman.
Benedict's main activity in Mexico is an outdoor Mass on Sunday in Silao's Bicentennial Park that is expected to draw more than 350,000 people and will mark the 200th anniversary of the region's independence.
On Monday, he flies to Santiago de Cuba to mark the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the image of the Virgin of Charity of Cobre, Cuba's patron. He arrives in Havana on Tuesday and celebrates Mass in the capital's famed Revolution Plaza the following day before returning to Rome.
Former Polish President Lech Walesa, whose Solidarity movement that helped topple communism was inspired by John Paul's 1979 visit to Poland, said he believes Benedict's visit to Cuba will "open a new chapter in Cuba's history."
Walesa's office said Thursday that his hopes were expressed in a letter sent to Benedict earlier this month in which Walesa said he hoped the trip would force Cuban authorities to listen to the will of the people.
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