Francis on last leg of Cuban trip; dissidents detained

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Pope Francis launched late Monday the last leg of his four-day trip to Cuba, as he travelled from Holguin to Santiago in the east of the Caribbean island.

In Santiago, Cuba’s second-largest city, Francis met with Roman Catholic bishops and prayed before the shrine devoted to the “Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre,” the country’s patroness. The pontiff is to say mass in El Cobre early Tuesday, before flying to the United States.

On Monday, in his sermon at an open-air mass in the Holguin’s Revolution Square, Francis asked Cubans “not to be satisfied with appearances or with what is politically correct.” The Vatican estimated at 150,000 the crowd that attended mass.

Cuban President Raul Castro attended mass, as he had done in Havana on Sunday. Castro, a Marxist and an atheist but also a declared admirer of the Argentinian-born pontiff, is likely to attend mass Tuesday in Santiago too, since he told Francis during a visit to the Vatican in May that he planned to attend all papal masses in Cuba.

In Holguin, the pope praised the Cuban Roman Catholic church, which endured tough times after Castro’s brother and predecessor Fidel Castro became the country’s leader in 1959. Many priests and Roman Catholic officials had to leave the island. John Paul II’s visit in 1998 launched a slow renaissance among the island’s faithful, and ties between the Roman Catholic hierarchy and Cuban authorities are currently good.

“I know the efforts and the sacrifices being made by the church in Cuba to bring Christ’s word and presence to all, even in the most remote areas,” Francis said.

Hundreds lined the streets of Holguin on a sunny day to watch the pontiff pass in his popemobile.

Francis, who also said mass Sunday before a crowd of about 200,000 in Havana, became the first pope to visit Holguin, after both John Paul II and Benedict XVI bypassed the city in their travels.

In Havana, a prominent dissident group reported Monday that at least 50 opposition activists have been detained in the first three days of Pope Francis’ visit to the communist island.

Most of the detentions sought to prevent dissidents from attending the papal mass in Havana’s Revolution Square, said Elizardo Sanchez, the leader of the umbrella group for dissident organizations – the Cuban Commission of Human Rights and National Reconciliation.

Four of the dissidents were arrested on Revolution Square itself, said Sanchez, who noted that the number of detentions “could top 50.” Those four were reportedly the only ones who made it to the square.

Dissident Miriam Leiva, an independent journalist, said Cuban authorities prevented her from getting to two events attended by the pope to which she had been invited by the Cuban Roman Catholic church. On Saturday, she was detained in front of her home as she was trying to leave to go to the nunciature, and on Sunday she was held as she was travelling in a car to Havana cathedral.

“They told me I could not attend any of the pope’s activities,” Leiva said.

Short-term detentions of dissidents are common in Cuba, to prevent them from doing things the authorities do not want them to do.

The Vatican confirmed that Leiva and another dissident had been invited to both events, although it noted that no specific meeting with the pontiff had been planned.

Cuban dissidents had requested in advance a meeting with the pope while he was in Cuba, but it remained unlikely that such a meeting would take place.

The pope, who helped broker a historic restoration of diplomatic ties between Havana and Washington, is to travel to the United States Tuesday. He will stay there until Sunday, making stops in Washington, New York and Philadelphia.

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