Raul Castro meets with Vatican official

February 26, 2008 2:31:39 PM PST
Raul Castro met behind closed doors with the Vatican's No. 2 official Tuesday, in his first encounter with a foreign dignitary as Cuba's president. The talks with Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Pope Benedict XVI's secretary of state, came two days after the 76-year-old Castro succeeded his older brother Fidel to become the first new Cuban head of state in 49 years.

Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque and vice presidents Esteban Lazo and Carlos Lage also attended the meeting. Details of the talks were not immediately released.

Bertone, whose visit marked the 10th anniversary of Pope John Paul II's visit to Cuba, said earlier Tuesday that the island's leaders had assured him they would allow some Roman Catholic broadcasts on state-controlled media.

"Authorities have promised me more openness in the print press and the radio - and in some exceptional cases, in television as well," he told the news agency of the Italian Bishops Conference, SIR. "We do hope for some openness, because nothing is impossible."

The timing of Bertone's weeklong trip, just after the 81-year-old Fidel Castro announced his resignation, was a coincidence, officials said.

After John Paul's 1998 trip, Cuban authorities released a large number of prisoners, including 99 held for political crimes. On Tuesday, Bertone told SIR that in meetings with officials he did not ask "directly" for Cuba release any political prisoners.

"It would look like interference," he was quoted as saying. "The Church does not impose, but proposes."

The cardinal has called for improving often-strained relations between Cuba's government and the local Catholic Church, and reacted warmly to official invitations for Benedict to visit the island.

Besides requests that some Catholic services and other events be aired on state television and radio, Church officials on the island have long urged the government to ease bans on religious schools. But Bertone told the news agency that he "did not ask for Catholic schools, but for greater space in formation and education."

During his visit, Bertone has also called the U.S. embargo against Cuba "ethically unacceptable," echoing the words of his predecessor.

Cuba's single-party, communist government never outlawed religion, but expelled priests and closed religious schools upon Fidel Castro's takeover of Cuba in 1959. Tensions eased in the early 1990s when the government removed references to atheism in the constitution and let believers of all faiths join the Communist Party. They warmed more with John Paul's visit.

But in a message to Cuban bishops last week, Benedict said some Catholics on the island are frustrated by difficulties, mistrust and a lack of resources.

Since arriving in Cuba, Bertone has presided over large Mass services in Havana and Santiago, the island's second-largest city, as well as in Guantanamo, which borders the U.S. naval base.