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HAVANA (Reuters) - Pope Benedict wants to help revive religious faith in Cuba when he visits the communist island later this month, the leader of Cuba's Catholic Church said in a nationally televised address.
In a country that for years was officially atheist, Cardinal Jaime Ortega said the 84-year-old pontiff saw the stirrings of religious fervor in the crowds of people who paid homage to the Virgin of Charity of El Cobre when the icon of Cuba's patron saint was paraded around the country last year.
"There was great interest in this pilgrimage because the pope is committed to reviving the faith in countries that were Christianized before who need a new evangelization," Ortega, who is the archbishop of Havana, said on Tuesday.
"There was something in this mission that was the revival of a sleeping faith, maybe a faith a little suppressed, but that was present in the heart of the people."
"The pope feels that he comes to confirm us in this faith. He comes to reaffirm these Christian values," said Ortega, who wore religious clothing and a chain with a large cross dangling from his neck.
The German-born pope will visit Cuba from March 26 to 28 at a time of change on the island, where President Raul Castro has undertaken reforms liberalizing the Soviet-style economy and improved long-rocky relations with the Catholic Church.
Ortega brokered a deal with Castro in 2010 to release more than 100 political prisoners and has been a forceful voice for economic reforms.
In December, Castro released 2,900 prisoners, citing the pope's pending visit as one of the reasons. Most of those freed were convicted of common crimes, although some were believed to have been political prisoners.
The Church has expanded social services, offered educational courses and built its first major project, a new seminary, since the 1959 revolution that put Fidel Castro, Raul Castro's older brother, in power and transformed the island into a communist state.
Church-state relations deteriorated quickly after the revolution and stayed mostly bad until the 1990s when a slow improvement began after Fidel Castro warmed to leftist "liberation theology" movements in Latin America.
The word "atheist" was replaced with "secular" in the constitution and shortly before Pope John Paul visited Cuba in January 1998, Fidel Castro reinstated Christmas as a holiday.
Today, Cuba is still dotted with abandoned Catholic churches and while the Church says 60 percent of Cubans are baptized as Catholics, it acknowledges that only about 5 percent actively practice the religion.
Ortega, who rarely appears on Cuban television, which is state-owned, told viewers "the pope is an intellectual, he is the pope of reason. He is man who has a vocation for theological science and to this he dedicated his life."
"He comes to make a pastoral visit, to fulfill the mandate that Jesus gave to Peter" to care for the flock, Ortega said.
He said the pope has long wanted to visit Cuba and, despite his advancing years and frail health, chose to come now to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the Virgin of Charity icon, said to have been found floating in a bay by three men trying to ride out a storm in their small boat.
Pope Benedict will make a three-day stop in Mexico before going to eastern Santiago de Cuba on May 26. He will visit the basilica in the mountainside town of El Cobre where the doll-like icon is enshrined before coming to Havana on May 27.
Editing by Mohammad Zargham