Pope Francis has called on the US and Cuba to continue their reconciliation after he touched down in Havana – the first stop in a two-nation visit that will also take him to the US.
The first Latin American pope, who arrived on the island on Saturday, was to lead a Mass in the Cuban capital’s Revolution Square, which is expected to be attended by nearly a million people.
He was due to address the crowd beside a large sculpture of his fellow Argentine, Che Guevara, following in the footsteps of his predecessors John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
To welcome Francis, a similarly giant poster of Jesus Christ was hung nearby.
Sunday morning kicked off a busy day for Francis, including a formal meeting with President Raul Castro and a possible encounter with his 89-year-old brother, Fidel.
Francis was expected to finish the day with an evening vespers service in the San Cristobal cathedral and meet Cuban young people.
No answer yet
Al Jazeera’s Latin America Editor Lucia Newman, reporting from Havana, quoted Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi as saying that a meeting between Francis and Cuban dissidents has not been ruled out.
Berta Soler, leader of the most visible opposition group, The Ladies in White, told Al Jazeera the dissidents requested a meeting with Francis but had received no answer.
Leaders of the group said they would meet at a bus depot a few blocks from Revolution Square at 6.30am to attend the papal Mass.
But they never arrived. “If we are not there, it is because the State Security Forces have intercepted and detained us,” Soler told Al Jazeera the night before .
Asked why so many popes have come to Cuba in the last 17 years – three to be exact – Father Lombardi said it “was out of the ordinary and due to the special process of reconciliation taking place between the United States and Cuba”.
Francis has played a facilitating role in the secret negotiations that led to the resumption of diplomatic ties between the US and Cuba on July 20, our correspondent said.
Francis wrote a personal appeal to Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro and hosted their delegations at a secret meeting at the Vatican last year to seal a deal after 18 months of closed-door negotiations.
Since then, the two leaders have reopened embassies in each other’s countries, held a personal meeting and at least two phone calls and launched a process aimed at normalising ties in fields ranging from trade to tourism to telecommunications.
Cubans turned out in droves on Saturday to line Francis’ motorcade route and welcome a man that many credit with helping bring about the thaw in relations between Cuba and the US.
Upon his arrival, Francis spoke first on the rapprochement, urging the Cuban and US governments to push forward on their newly forged path and “develop all its possibilities”.
The Vatican has long opposed the US trade embargo on the grounds that it hurts ordinary Cubans most, and is clearly hopeful that detente will eventually lead to a lifting of sanctions.
But only the US Congress can remove the embargo. Francis will visit Congress next week at the start of the US leg of his trip, but it is not known if he will raise the issue there.
‘Example of reconciliation’
Standing with Raul Castro by his side, Francis said the diplomatic developments over recent months have given him hope.
“I urge political leaders to persevere on this path and to develop all its possibilities as a proof of the high service which they are called to carry out on behalf of the peace and wellbeing of their peoples, of all America, and as an example of reconciliation for the entire world,” he said.
Castro, for his part, criticised the embargo as “cruel, immoral and illegal” and called for it to end.
But he also thanked Francis again for his role in fostering “the first step” in a process of normalising relations.
Francis has said he is coming to Cuba as a messenger of mercy, aiming to give solidarity to a long-suffering people and church.
The island’s communist government never outlawed religion per se.
But it came close, closing religious schools after Fidel Castro came to power in 1959.
He expelled priests and sent others to prison or work camps, including the current archbishop of Havana, Cardinal Jaime Ortega.
Castro began easing prohibitions on faith in the 1990s, removing constitutionally enshrined atheism in advance of a visit by Pope John Paul II and reinstating Christmas as a public holiday soon after.
The Catholic Church has quietly established itself as practically the only independent institution with any widespread influence on the island.