Castro, Cubans warmly welcome 'pilgrim of hope' Pope John Paul II arrives in Havana for historic visit

January 22, 1998|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

HAVANA -- Calling himself a "pilgrim of love, of truth and of hope," Pope John Paul II arrived in Cuba's capital yesterday for a historic five-day visit to the euphoric cheers of the hundreds of thousands who lined his parade route.

The pontiff slowly descended from his Alitalia jet into the bright tropical sunshine to kiss a box of Cuban soil raised to his lips by four children.

Pope John Paul, the 77-year-old, staunch anti-Communist who helped tear down the Iron Curtain, was greeted by President Fidel Castro, Cuba's 71-year-old Communist dictator, dressed in a blue double-breasted suit instead of his usual military fatigues. Castro gently assisted the stooped and ailing pontiff, his hand at the pope's elbow.

"I thank God, the lord of history and of our personal destinies, that he has enabled me to come to this land which Christopher Columbus called 'the most beautiful that human eyes have seen,' " the pope said during an hourlong ceremony at Jose Marti International Airport.

In his welcoming address, Castro called to mind the genocide of Native Americans in the conquest and colonization of the Americas, as well as the enslavement of millions of Africans.

Castro went on to criticize the U.S. trade embargo, which he blames for many of Cuba's economic problems.

"Today, holy father, genocide is attempted again when by hunger, illness and total economic suffocation, some try to subdue this people that refuses to accept the dictates and the rule of the mightiest economic, political and military power in history -- much more powerful than the old Rome that for centuries had the beasts devour those who refused to abdicate their faith," Castro said.

"Like those Christians we choose a thousand times death rather than abdicate our conviction.

"The revolution, like the church, also has many martyrs," he said.

Castro proclaimed the Cuban government's respect for religion, even though the state was officially atheistic until 1992 and churches faced harassment until recent years.

"Respect for believers and nonbelievers alike is a basic principle revolutionary Cubans try to impress upon their fellow citizens," he said. "Such principles have been defined and consecrated by our constitution and our laws. If there have ever been difficulties, the revolution is not to blame."

A mission in Cuba

The pope made it clear that he is here to bolster the mission of Cuba's Roman Catholic Church, which is experiencing a resurgence and a new vitality.

"The church in Cuba has always proclaimed Jesus Christ, even if at times she has had a scarcity of priests and has had to do so in difficult circumstances," Pope John Paul said.

The pope greeted the priests, brothers, nuns and catechists working in the church and praised their efforts.

"In each one of them I see the reflection of this local church, dearly loved and always present in my heart, with whose aspirations and legitimate desires I feel closely bound in solidarity," he said.

"You are and must be the principal agents of your own personal and national history," the pope said.

Outside the airport, crowds began lining the 19-mile route of the papal motorcade through the streets of Havana at least four hours before the pope would pass by. Castro had asked Havana's citizens to turn out to greet the pope, and they complied, arriving in government buses and trucks. Hundreds of thousands lined the route, and several Cubans said they'd never seen such a large crowd.

'This beautiful day'

For about a week, the weather in Havana had been unusually cool and gloomy, but clear skies and 80-degree sunshine greeted the pope yesterday. Spaces in the shade were at a premium, and for relief from the sun, people used commemorative papal visit visors, umbrellas or copies of Granma, the official state newspaper, which bore a front page dedicated solely to the pope's visit.

"I've been here since 9: 30 this morning," said Jane Oliva Gonzalez, 45, who was dressed in the papal colors -- yellow blouse and white flowered slacks -- as she waited for the motorcade just outside the airport. "I've got a cold, but I feel fine. God created this beautiful day for the pope."

Emilio Rodriguez, 40, a construction equipment operator, stood on a high patch of grassy earth a bit away from the crowd, dressed in dark-blue work clothes. He said he was not Catholic, not even a Christian. "I came to pay respect to the pope," he said simply. "You have to have respect for religion. You have to respect a man like the pope."

After the pontiff's plane arrived, the crowd could hear booms from the guns of a military salute, and excitement started to build. The crowd on the street outside the airport was four deep and more. A stream of people lined the motorcade route.

Brotherhood

Grisel Perez Alba, 46, came with about 70 people in three trucks from two churches in Havana: St. Peter and St. Phillip Neri. She was holding a yellow cardboard star with the word "Hermanidad," or "brotherhood," printed on it to wave as the pope passed by.

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