Cubans honor Catholic patron ahead of papal visit

Mon Dec 12, 2011 3:04pm EST
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By Jack Kimball

HAVANA (Reuters) - White-robed priests burned incense as they marched slowly through Havana's narrow streets, giving Catholic faithful a rare glimpse of Cuba's patron saint outside her remote eastern home.

The ceremony was one of many witnessed by tens of thousands of people across the communist-led island in recent weeks, after the Roman Catholic Church was given permission for the first time in decades to stage processions with Cuba's beloved Virgin of Charity of Cobre icon.

Flanked by motorcycle police and Church organizers, the shrine's tour is the latest sign of improving Church-state ties in the historically Catholic country, which was overtly atheist after its 1959 revolution until the early 1990s.

"We hope (relations) get better like they've been doing up to now with the state and the Church. We always have hope that they'll get even better," one housewife named Maria said last week as she waited for the Virgin in central Havana.

Pope Benedict XVI - whose last namesake declared the statue of the Virgin of Charity of Cobre as Cuba's patron in 1916 -- said on Monday he would visit Cuba and Mexico before Easter and Vatican sources said the trip would be at the end of March.

Sidelined for decades by the communist government until Pope John Paul II's visit in 1998, the Catholic Church has now carved out a role as an interlocutor with the government on domestic issues.

It has won praise for securing the release of dozens of political prisoners over the last year and a half, and raised hopes it could do more to broker reforms and perhaps even help improve frayed U.S.-Cuba ties.

President Raul Castro - who took over when his brother Fidel fell ill in 2006 - has said the Church and the state do not always agree but have a "constructive" relationship.   Continued...

<p>Cuba's Catholic Church leader Cardinal Jaime Ortega (2nd L) takes part in a procession to honor the statue of Our Lady of Charity, the patroness of Cuba, in Havana December 6, 2011. REUTERS/Enrique De La Osa</p>