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Pope Benedict XVI begins three-day visit to Cuba

SANTIAGO, Cuba — Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Cuba on Monday in the footsteps of his more famous predecessor, saying he holds great affection for Cubans on both sides of the Florida Straits and heartfelt hopes for reconciliation.

President Raul Castro warmly greeted the pope, who said he was coming as "a pilgrim of charity" as he arrived at the sweltering airport in Santiago, Cuba's second largest city.

The pontiff, who last week said Marxism "no longer responds to reality," gave a more gentle tweak to his hosts by expressing sympathy for all islanders, including prisoners. "I carry in my heart the just aspirations and legitimate desires of all Cubans, wherever they may be," he said. "Those of the young and the elderly, of adolescents and children, of the sick and workers, of prisoners and their families, and of the poor and those in need."

In his own remarks, the Cuban leader assured Benedict his country favors complete religious freedom and has good relations with all religious institutions. "The Cuban Constitution consecrates and guarantees total religious freedom for all citizens," he said.

He also criticized the 50-year-old U.S. economic embargo and defended the socialist ideal of providing for those less fortunate. "We have confronted scarcity but have never failed in our duty to share with those who have less," Castro said.

Benedict's three-day stay in Cuba will inevitably spark comparisons to John Paul II's historic 1998 tour, when Fidel Castro traded his army fatigues for a suit and tie to greet the pope at Havana's airport.

Benedict was scheduled to travel through town in his glassed-in popemobile and then rally tens of thousands of believers at an outdoor Mass in the colonial city's main square on a blue-and-white platform crowned by graceful arches in the shape of a papal miter. Benedict will spend the night in a house beside the shrine of Cuba's patron saint, the Virgin of Charity of Cobre.

Pope Benedict XVI begins three-day visit to Cuba 03/26/12 [Last modified: Monday, March 26, 2012 11:34pm]

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