In this picture made available by the Vatican newspaper Osservatore Romano Pope Benedict XVI meets with Fidel Castro in Havana, Wednesday, March 28, 2012. (AP Photo/Osservatore Romano)
HAVANA (AP) — Pope Benedict XVI demanded more freedom for the Catholic Church in communist-run Cuba and preached against "fanaticism" in an unusually political sermon before hundreds of thousands at Revolution Plaza, with President Raul Castro in the front row.
Later, the president's brother, revolutionary leader Fidel, grilled the pontiff on changes in church liturgy and his role as spiritual leader of the world's Catholics, a Vatican spokesman said.
Benedict's homily was a not-so-subtle jab at the island's leadership before a vast crowd of Cubans, both in the sprawling plaza and watching on television. But he also clearly urged an end to Cuba's isolation, a reference to the 50-year U.S. economic embargo and the inability of 11 American presidents and brothers Fidel and Raul Castro to forge peace.
"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," Benedict said. The remark built upon the famed call of his predecessor, John Paul II, who said in his groundbreaking 1998 visit that Cuba should "open itself up to the world, and may the world open itself up to Cuba."
With the country's leadership listening from front-row seats, Benedict referred to the biblical account of how youths persecuted by the Babylonian king "preferred to face death by fire rather than betray their conscience and their faith."
He said people find freedom when they seek the truth that Christianity offers.
"On the other hand there are those who wrongly interpret this search for the truth, leading them to irrationality and fanaticism; they close themselves up in 'their truth' and try to impose it on others," he said from the altar, backed by an image of Cuba's revolutionary hero Ernesto "Che" Guevara.
Still, it was unclear how much the pope's message resonated with ordinary Cubans.
Many in the crowd had trouble hearing him over the loudspeakers, and others said it was hard to understand the dense biblical message delivered by the pope in a soft voice.
"I don't understand this Mass at all. I don't have an education in these things and I know nothing about religion," said Mario Mendez, a 19-year-old communications student. "On top of that, I can't hear anything."
Benedict's comments were an unmistakable criticism of the Cuban reality even if the pope didn't mention the government by name, said the Rev. Joseph Fessio, a former student of Benedict's. As his U.S. publisher, Fessio knows well the pope's message and how he transmits it, particularly the watchwords of his pontificate: truth and freedom.
"Does anyone in Cuba not know how the words themselves condemn the reality there?" Fessio said in an email.
Benedict's trip was aimed largely at building a greater place for his church in the least Catholic nation in Latin America. In his homily, he urged authorities to let the church more freely preach its message and educate its young in the faith in schools and universities. Religious schools were closed after the Castros came to power a half-century ago.
He praised openings for religion made since the early 1990s, when the government abandoned official atheism and slowly warmed to the church, a pattern that accelerated with the visit of Pope John Paul II.
"It must be said with joy that in Cuba steps have been taken to enable the church to carry out her essential mission of expressing her faith openly and publicly," Benedict said. "Nonetheless this must continue forward" for the good of Cuban society.
During the 30-minute meeting between the pope and Fidel Castro at the Vatican's Embassy, the retired Cuban leader — a one-time altar boy who was educated by Jesuit priests — essentially interviewed Benedict, asking him about the changes in church teachings since he was a child, what it's like to be a pope and the challenges facing humanity today, said the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi.
Benedict, meanwhile, raised issues such as the role of freedom and liberty, Lombardi said.
Photos showed Fidel, wearing a dark warm-up jacket, gesturing with one hand while clutching a man's arm with the other. The pope, wearing his white cassock, leaned in slightly and smiled.
Castro introduced his companion, Dalia Soto del Valle, and his two children and asked the pope to send him some books to elaborate on the topics they had discussed, Lombardi said.
The meeting began with some jokes about their ages. Castro is 85, Benedict reaches that milestone next month. "Yes, I'm old, but I can still do my job," Lombardi quoted the pope as saying.
He described the meeting as serene, intense, animated and cordial.
At the morning Mass, banners large and small filled the plaza, and many took shade under umbrellas as announcers shouted "Viva Cuba! Viva el Papa!"
"The pope is something big for Cubans," said Carlos Herrera, a tourism worker who came to the plaza with his wife. "I come to hear his words, wise words for the Cuban people. That helps us. It gives us peace, it gives us unity. We do not want war."
But others said they were told to attend by their employers in a country accustomed to organizing mass events, usually meant to show support for Fidel Castro.
The Vatican said the plaza holds 600,000 people and it appeared nearly full, though many Cubans drifted off after registering their presence with teachers and employers.
"We came with our class group and we are leaving because I can't handle any more," said a student who only gave his first name, Roberto, for fear he could get in trouble. "I came to do what my teacher said. I checked in, and I'm leaving."
During the event, an Associated Press journalist saw a man in the crowd led briskly away by people in civilian clothing after he shouted "Pope, don't leave until communism falls!" It was not clear who he was or where he was taken. The incident was similar to another during the pope's Mass in Santiago Monday, when a man shouted anti-government slogans before being hustled away.
Ahead of the Mass, Amnesty International alleged that opposition members had been prevented from attending, and that some were detained.
Elizardo Sanchez, who monitors human rights on the island and acts as a de facto spokesman for the opposition, said he could not confirm any detentions because his mobile phone hadn't worked since shortly after the pope arrived on Monday. It was an experience shared by many other islanders and foreign journalists who could not make calls on jammed lines.
The Obama administration said Wednesday it had asked Benedict to raise the case of American contractor Alan Gross, jailed on suspicion of espionage. "We obviously are hopeful that the pope will continue to be strong on all of the human rights issues in Cuba, religious freedom, and it would be a very, very good thing if the Cuban government were to take this opportunity to release Alan Gross," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
Gross is serving a 15-year prison sentence stemming from his work importing communications equipment onto the island under a USAID-funded democracy-building program. Cuba considers such programs to be attempts against its sovereignty.
During the Mass, a huge poster of Cuba's patron saint, the Virgin of Charity of Cobre, covered the facade of a building facing the plaza. The icon has been the spiritual focus of Benedict's three-day trip, timed to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the appearance of a statue of the Virgin to two fishermen and an African slave in waters off Cuba.
Benedict visited the statue in a sanctuary near the eastern city of Santiago on Tuesday and prayed for greater freedom and renewal for all Cubans — another gentle nudge to the government to continue opening itself up to greater reforms.
A top official in Havana quickly responded: "In Cuba, there will not be political reform," said Marino Murillo, Cuba's economic czar.
During a nearly hour-long meeting Tuesday with Raul Castro — twice the normal length of papal audiences with heads of state — Benedict asked that the government declare a holiday for Good Friday, when Catholics commemorate the death of Christ.
The government didn't give an immediate response.
The date is not a holiday in the United States or much of Europe, including Italy or devoutly Catholic Poland, but it is in many Latin American countries.
Associated Press writers Peter Orsi, Vivian Sequera, Anne-Marie Garcia and Paul Haven contributed to this report.
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