- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 28, 2012

HAVANA (AP) — Pope Benedict XVI, denouncing “fanaticism” that tries to impose its truth on others, demanded greater freedom for the Catholic Church in Cuba during Mass before hundreds of thousands of people Wednesday in the shrine of the island’s communist revolution.

Benedict’s unusually politicized homily was a not-so-subtle jab at Cuba‘s government before a vast crowd in Revolution Plaza, but he also used plain language to urge 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,” he said.

With the country’s leadership listening from front-row seats, Benedict issued his strongest denunciation of religious intolerance yet in Cuba, referring to the biblical account of how people 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 in the shadow of Cuba‘s revolution hero, Ernesto “Che” Guevara.

Benedict didn’t cite the government by name, but later he urged Cuban authorities to let the church preach its message more freely and educate its young in the faith in schools and universities.

“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,” he said. “Nonetheless, this must continue forward” for the good of Cuban society.

The remarks came before Benedict’s eagerly anticipated meeting with Fidel Castro, confirmed last night by the revolutionary leader himself.

Cubans waving flags and banners large and small filled the plaza for the morning Mass, shielding themselves from the blistering sun with umbrellas as Benedict passed by in his white popemobile. President Raul Castro and leading Cabinet officials wore white, formal guayabera shirts, and Raul Castro later climbed the steps to the altar and shook Benedict’s hand.

“Viva Cuba! Viva el Papa!” the announcers shouted.

“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 suggested they were here because they were told to attend by their employers in a country where mass shows of support for Fidel Castro long have been a mainstay of his half-century revolution. The plaza holds 600,000 people and appeared nearly full, though many 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.”

In the days leading up to the pope’s visit, some Cubans said they resented that the government was now telling them to attend the Mass, despite preaching atheism until the early 1990s and remaining skeptical about the church’s role in society.

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