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Cuba Special Report: Pope, at Mass, calls for full religious freedom in Cuba

Pope Benedict greets the crowds following the March 28 Mass in Havana's Revolution Square. Pilot photo/Gregory L. Tracy

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HAVANA (CNS) -- Preaching at Mass in Havana's Revolution Square, location of the headquarters of Cuba's Communist Party, Pope Benedict XVI called for full religious freedom and greater respect for human rights on the island.

"In Cuba steps have been taken to enable the Church to carry out her essential mission of expressing the faith openly and publicly," the pope said during his homily March 28. "Nonetheless, this must continue forward."

With President Raul Castro seated near the altar platform, the pope said, "I wish to encourage the country's government authorities to strengthen what has already been achieved and advance along this path of genuine service to the true good of Cuban society as a whole."

People started gathering for the Mass before 6 a.m. They prepared for the liturgy with songs and by listening to priests and a catechist explaining basic Church teaching on baptism and the Eucharist, the role of the pope in the Church and Pope Benedict's biography.

The Mass began at 9 a.m. under a clear blue sky with a light breeze blowing. As at the papal Mass in Santiago de Cuba March 26, thousands in the crowd were dressed in white T-shirts and baseball caps.

A priest led chants once the pope arrived and made his way in the popemobile through the crowd. One of the priest's louder inventions was "Benedicto, Benedicto, confirmanos en Cristo," ("Benedict, Benedict, confirm us in Christ").

In his homily, Pope Benedict said that faith in God and Jesus Christ is the key to salvation, true happiness and authentic freedom, and that the daily lives and work of committed Catholics can benefit the whole society.

The truth about the human person created in God's image and saved from sin by Jesus is the foundation of an ethical code that all reasonable people of good will can share, he said.

The ethical code "contains clear and precise indications concerning life and death, duties and rights, marriage, family and society, in short, regarding the inviolable dignity of the human person," he said.

"Cuba and the world need change," he said, but that will happen only if each and every person "is in a position to seek the truth and chooses the way of love, sowing reconciliation and fraternity."

The Catholic Church is not asking for special privileges in Cuba, but for the recognition of the basic right to religious freedom and freedom of expression, which includes expressing one's faith in concrete acts of charity and service to society, the pope said.

To carry out its obligations to proclaim and live the Gospel, he said, the Church "must count on basic religious freedom, which consists in her being able to proclaim and to celebrate her faith also in public, bringing to others the message of love, reconciliation and peace."

Pope Benedict said the Church's witness is usually expressed through "preaching and teaching," which is one of the reasons why the Church hopes that "the moment will soon arrive" when it can operate schools and universities in Cuba.

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