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Pope meets Castro, celebrates Mass in Revolution Square (Update)

Pope Francis gives the first mass of his visit to Cuba

Pope Francis, Latin America’s first pope, met Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro on Sunday, discussing religion and world affairs at the home of the 89-year-old retired president.

Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said the meeting lasted about 40 minutes and was “very familiar, fraternal and friendly.”

Castro’s wife and several children and grandchildren were present, the spokesman said.

Francis gave Castro several of his official papal writings as well as two books on spirituality and a book and CD on the writings of Father Armando Llorente, a Jesuit priest who taught Castro in high school.

Castro gave him a copy of “Fidel and Religion,” a 1985 book of interviews with a Brazilian priest and writer that lifted a taboo about speaking about religion in Cuba, which was then officially atheist.

The spokesman said there were no official photographers at the meeting and the Vatican would not release pictures. He said it would be up to the Castro family to decide whether to release pictures taken with phones.

Fidel Castro, the older brother of President Raul Castro, led the Cuban government from 1959 until he resigned for health reasons, at first provisionally in 2006 and then definitively in 2008.

Pope Francis celebrated Mass with tens of thousands of Cubans earlier on Sunday in Havana’s Revolution Square, the political heart of Cuba where the Communist government stages its biggest rallies.

The huge plaza is where Cubans celebrate May Day beneath massive portraits of revolutionary leaders Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos built into the facades of state buildings.

To welcome the pope, who helped bring about the recent rapprochement between Cuba and the United States, a similarly giant poster of Jesus Christ was hung nearby.

Some waited in the square from 3 a.m.

“Francis has come to bless this new union between Cuba and the United States,” said Enrique Mesa, a 32-year-old tourism worker.

While Cuba’s government basks in the glow of the pope’s four-day visit, he may use the stage to criticize the Communist leaders on democracy and human rights.

Between 30-40 dissidents were detained to stop them attending papal events, a dissident human rights group said.

Security agents wrestled two men and a woman to the ground at the edge of Revolution Square, then led them off, after they started shouting and tried to hand out flyers, a Reuters witness said.

Arriving on Saturday, Francis exhorted Cuba and the United States to deepen their detente, and encouraged Cuba to grant more freedom to the Roman Catholic Church, which has re-emerged as a powerful force after suffering decades of repression.

“His visit is cause for hope in our aspirations for improvement,” said biologist Benito Espinoza, 41, at Revolution Square. “We are an optimistic people, but we have suffered for many years.”

The first Latin American pope, Francis waved and greeted Cubans as he arrived at the Mass, delighting one family when he picked up and kissed a four-year-old girl Karen Correoso.

“It’s a historic moment for her and for us. He blessed her,” said the girl’s aunt, Maria Teresa Gonzalez, 64, from a church in Matanzas city.

U.S. RAPPROCHEMENT

Many Cubans appreciate the pope for his role in the secret talks that led to last December’s breakthrough with Washington, when Cuban President Raul Castro and U.S. President Barack Obama vowed to normalize relations and end more than half a century of Cold War-era animosity.

Francis will fly from Cuba to Washington on Tuesday for meetings with Obama and addresses at the U.S. Congress and United Nations.

Cuba will welcome any papal condemnation of the U.S. economic embargo, which persists despite Obama’s policy change as only the U.S. Congress can lift it. The Republican leadership in Congress has defied Obama’s calls to do so.

But Castro’s government will also be sensitive to any criticism of its one-party political system or repression of dissidents.

Elizardo Sanchez, head of the Cuban Commission of Human Rights and National Reconciliation, said most of the 30-40 opposition activists rounded up were in Santa Clara and Havana.

Among them were three dissidents whose detention kept them from a meeting with the pope on Saturday night, said Berta Soler, leader of the dissident group Ladies in White.

Instead of seeing Francis at the Vatican’s diplomatic residence in Havana, Soler said she, Miriam Leyva and Martha Beatriz Roque were in police custody for several hours.

“The Holy Father is not going to change anything in Cuba,” Soler said. “We don’t expect much from Francis because he comes here to talk about political matters between Cuba and the United States, not to resolve anything.”

Although Francis did not overtly criticize the government on Saturday, he did say he would like his greeting “to embrace especially all those who, for various reasons, I will not be able to meet, and to Cubans throughout the world.”

He was clearly referring to Cuban exiles around the world, including the strident anti-communists concentrated in South Florida since the early years after the 1959 revolution led by Fidel Castro.

Some believed he was also referring to political opponents of Cuba’s government who are in prison.

Cuba denies it holds political prisoners, but one dissident human rights group says as many as 60 are held in Cuban jails.

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