|Pope Benedict’s trip to Cuba will coincide with the 400th anniversary of Cuba’s patron saint [EPA]|
Pope Benedict XVI will visit Cuba next spring, Vatican officials have said, the first trip by a pontiff since John Paul II’s historic tour in 1998.
The exact date of the trip, which coincides with the 400-year anniversary of Cuba’s patron saint, the Virgin of Caridad del Cobre, will be announced in Rome early next week, said Monsignor Jose Felix Perez, executive secretary of the Cuban Bishops Conference.
“It will be a moment for energising the faith in Cuba. It will give strength and vigour to the faith in Cuba,” Perez said.
He said the pope would meet members of President Raul Castro’s government.
Officials also said Pope Benedict was considering visiting Mexico as part of the same trip.
Cuba’s church has played an increasingly important role in Cuba in recent years, helping negotiate the release of political prisoners in 2009 and 2010, and even consulting Castro and his advisers on free-market changes he is pushing to save the island’s economy from ruin.
Following the 1959 Cuban Revolution, as Fidel Castro, the former president, increasingly embraced Marxism and the Soviet Union, anti-clerical actions increased.
Authorities discouraged Christmas celebrations, closed religious schools in 1962 and barred Communist Party membership to people of religious belief.
But relations began easing after the Cold War. Cuba removed references to atheism from the constitution in the 1990s and allowed believers of all faiths to join the Communist Party.
In 1998, Castro shed his trademark olive-green fatigues for a business suit and tie and greeted John Paul personally at the airport on his arrival at the island.
Benedict, 84, has limited his travels mostly to Europe, both to spare him from long trips and to focus his efforts on a continent where Christianity is seen by many as having fallen by the wayside.
He did visit Brazil in 2007 and has said he hopes to return in 2013 for World Youth Day, the church’s youth festival.
The pope has a trip to Benin coming up later this month, the second to Africa in his six-year-pontificate.