Pope travels to Castro brothers’ Cuban home region

Pope-FrancisPope Francis headed to Holguin in eastern Cuba Monday, a cradle of Catholic faith on the island and also the home region of communist leaders Fidel and Raul Castro.

Holguin is known for a cross that has overlooked the city from a hilltop since a Franciscan monk hauled it up there in 1790 — though the original wooden version succumbed to old age and the 1950 replacement was destroyed by lightning.

Now made of concrete, the five-meter (16-foot) landmark has endured through centuries of hurricanes and years of tensions between the Church and the communist regime, which was officially atheist for more than three decades until 1992.

Francis, who arrived in Cuba on Saturday, flew from Havana to Holguin at 1200 GMT and was seen off at the airport by a high-level Cuban delegation including National Assembly president Esteban Lazo.

He will celebrate morning mass at a square named for Cuban independence hero Calixto Garcia.

Some 150,000 people are expected.

He will then visit the hilltop cross to bless the city of 291,000 inhabitants, Cuba’s fourth-largest.

According to legend, locals first saw a statue of Cuba’s patron saint, Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, floating in the Holguin bay 1612 after a storm.

Holguin is the only stop on the pope’s eight-day, six-city tour of Cuba and the United States that has never received a papal visit.

– Santiago, revolution landmark –

After his seven-hour stop in Holguin, the pope takes off for Santiago, the country’s second city — dubbed “the heroic city” by the communist regime because Fidel Castro declared there on January 1, 1959 that his revolution had toppled dictator Fulgencio Batista.

The 78-year-old pope was visibly tired by the end of his packed itinerary Sunday, when he delivered mass to hundreds of thousands of people on Havana’s Revolution Square, met both Castro brothers, gave an off-the-script speech to local clergy and then addressed a crowd of young Cubans — all in the tropical heat.

Francis met Fidel Castro, 89, at his home in Havana, then held a closed-door meeting with Raul, 84, at the government’s headquarters.

Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said the pope had a “very informal and friendly” conversation with Fidel, who stepped down in 2006.

Francis gave the former Cuban leader four books, including two on theology.

Castro reciprocated with a copy of Brazilian priest Frei Betto’s book of interviews with him, “Fidel and Religion.”

Video of the meeting aired on Cuban state TV showed the men sitting and chatting, the visibly voluble Castro clad in a tracksuit — his trademark garb in retirement.

– Vatican and dissidents –

Earlier, at his morning mass, three Cuban dissidents were arrested as they approached Francis shouting “Freedom!” when he arrived in his popemobile.

An AFP photographer said the activists — two men and a woman — yelled anti-government slogans as plainclothes agents detained them when they tried to get near the pope.

The pontiff, who was busy grasping the outstretched hands of well-wishers on the other side of his vehicle, did not appear to notice.

Cuba bans opposition groups and routinely arrests dissidents who try to protest — typically releasing them after a few hours, at least in recent years.

Several leading dissidents have criticized the pope for not accepting their requests to meet him during his visit.

Lombardi told journalists that Vatican officials had in fact been in contact with some dissidents, but that they had not managed to arrange a meeting.

The pope will leave from Santiago Tuesday for the United States, where his itinerary includes stops at the White House, the US Congress and the United Nations General Assembly.

The trip carries the added symbolic weight of the US-Cuban rapprochement that led the Cold War foes to restore diplomatic ties in July — a reconciliation the pope helped bring about in secret meetings.

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