Thousands of Cubans streamed to Havana's Revolution Square Wednesday for a mass led by Pope Benedict XVI, who has been gently but persistently prodding Communist authorities to embrace change.
"Cuba and the world need change, but this will occur only if each one is in a position to seek the truth and chooses the way of love, sowing reconciliation and fraternity," the pontiff told hundreds of thousands of worshippers and wellwishers, including President Raul Castro, seated front and center.
"The truth is a desire of the human person, the search for which always supposes the exercise of authentic freedom," the pontiff, 84, told the vast crowd including hundreds of wildly cheering and chanting nuns, and others waving a sea of Vatican yellow and Cuban blue, white and red flags.
Hailing the Cuban government's granting of freedom of religion since 1998, Benedict also said Cubans' quests for truth generally should also respect "the inviolable dignity of the human person."
That sounded very much like an oblique reference to the situation of dissidents pressing for political opening in the Americas' only one-party Communist ruled country. Dozens were rounded up and arrested during the pope's visit, dissident sources said.
Local human rights groups such as the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation, have had their phone lines cut off since Monday. The cellular phones of prominent activists also are suddenly unreachable, Amnesty International said.
"In view of this situation, which contradicts his appeal for a ?more open society' in Cuba, the pope should take a stand and lend his voice to those that have been left voiceless due to the ongoing repression and condemn the lack of freedoms in Cuba," said Javier Zuniga, special advisor at Amnesty.
About 100 Catholic Cubans marched early Wednesday from Havana's Catholic cathedral to the mass venue, carrying a statue of their patroness Our Lady of Charity. It was a celebration of the fact that until 14 years ago, religious processions were banned in officially atheist Cuba for decades.
"I came to honor the Virgin of Charity as part of the celebration we are having for the pope's visit," said Ever Marin, 13, an eight-grader who was taking part in a procession for the first time.
About a half million Cubans, on foot as well as packed onto state buses and trucks, and decked out in Vatican flag-yellow visors thronged the square where revolution icon Fidel Castro famously gave countless addresses to masses of supporters beneath the Jose Marti monument. Benedict XVI was Wednesday also set to meet Fidel Castro, 85.
Last week, Benedict said Marxism "no longer corresponds to reality," and argued Cuba could be helped by looking at new models. But a dialogue about political and economic opening can be challenging here because the parties have starkly different ideas of what freedom and democracy mean.
Cuba's leadership dreads the idea of joining the global economy which it sees as corrupt and unjust. The top-down economy is subsidized and propped up by key regional ally, socialist Venezuela.
The Cuban government also insists democracy already exists, and see the papal visit as a way of showing the world it is tolerant of religious expression.
Tuesday the pontiff's calls for openness prompted Cuban Vice President Marino Murillo to rule out any political opening.
"In Cuba, there will be no political reforms," Murillo, who is in charge of carrying out the economic reform program ordered over the past few years by President Raul Castro, told reporters.
"What we are talking about is an updating of our Cuban economic model, which makes our own form of socialism more sustainable, for the well-being of our people," he said.
Catholics account for just about 10 percent of Cuba's population of about 11 million. The church nonetheless has emerged as the most important non-state actor in Cuba, even mediating the release of prisoners.
After a visit by John Paul II in 1998, expectations ran high that the charismatic Polish pontiff might help spark change.
But more than a decade later, Cuba remains isolated and its state-run economy feeble, with most workers eking out a living on $20 a month.
The pope -- leader of the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics -- is seeking to bolster the Church's relationship with Cuban authorities, and to encourage new and renewed faith in the mainly secular island nation.
Source: AFP Global Edition