When Pope Benedict XVI goes to Latin America in March, Mexico is an obvious choice, with nearly 100 million Catholics.
But communist-run Cuba is also on his itinerary. The 84-year-old pontiff does not travel often, and this leg of his trip will be a strong show of support for Cuba's church leaders and their growing role in pushing President Raul Castro's government for change.
More than anywhere else in Cuba, the Santa Rita church in Havana's Miramar district is the place where religion and politics intersect.
Every Sunday after Mass, a few dozen activists known as the Ladies in White march along the street outside in the only act of public protest tolerated by the Castro government.
The origins of Pope Benedict's upcoming trip to Cuba can partly be traced back to events at the church in the spring of 2010. At that time, government-organized mobs attacked the women outside the church as foreign television cameras rolled.
Cuba's church leaders intervened, and in the dialogue with Raul Castro that followed, more than 100 jailed dissidents were freed. They included all of the Cuban inmates considered prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International. The women's weekly protests continue today with the church's protection.
Under Raul Castro, Cuba's Catholic Church has recovered a degree of prominence it hasn't had in 50 years. Castro said the island will welcome the pope with affection and respect, announcing he would pardon nearly 3,000 more prisoners in advance of the papal visit.
"This is a demonstration of the strength and generosity of the Cuban Revolution," Castro said in a Dec. 23 speech to Cuba's parliament.
Following In Pope John Paul's Footsteps
The stated purpose of Benedict's trip is the 400-year anniversary of Cuba's patron saint, La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, but the visit will also give the Vatican's blessing to this emerging church-state relationship.
"The church has always expressed its support to the changes that are taking place in the country," said Orlando Marquez, the spokesman for the Havana Archdiocese. "And the church is saying that those changes are good, those are changes people want, those are changes that must continue. And the Holy See knows that."
Pope Benedict's visit comes 14 years after his predecessor John Paul II's historic trip to Havana, when he met Fidel Castro and urged Cuba to open to the world, and for the world to open to Cuba.
Today the island's diplomatic ties to much of the world are stronger, and Cuba receives record numbers of tourists and Cuban-American visitors. But relations with the U.S. remain stuck, and the 50-year-old trade embargo is still firmly in place.
Roberto Veiga, the editor of Lay Space, a church-published journal that has become a leading forum for political and economic debate, says Cuba will continue opening up more, but on its own terms.
"The world can guide Cuba and help Cuba along in its transformation, but those who will decide and influence the process directly are Cubans," Veiga says. "That includes Cubans on the island and those abroad, but it will be for Cubans to determine."
That has also been the church's message as it encourages reconciliation among Cubans and Cuban exiles. With the pope planning to celebrate Mass in the public plazas of Havana and Santiago de Cuba, thousands of Cuban-Americans and other U.S. residents may travel to the island to be there.
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