Pope Francis is escorted to a chair by Cuban President...

Pope Francis is escorted to a chair by Cuban President Raul Castro during his arrival ceremony at the airport in Havana, Cuba, Saturday, Sept. 19, 2015. Credit: AP / Ramon Espinosa

HAVANA -- Pope Francis began a historic nine-day visit to Cuba and the United States here Saturday, praising the normalizing of relations between the Cold War foes as "an example of reconciliation for the entire world."

Minutes after Francis' special Alitalia flight landed at José Martí International Airport in Havana, he touched on themes of peace and reconciliation.

"For some months now, we have witnessed an event which fills us with hope: the process of normalizing relations between two peoples following years of estrangement," Francis said during a formal airport ceremony.

The pope called on "political leaders to persevere on this path" and set "an example of reconciliation for the entire world." He added: "The world needs reconciliation."

Francis is credited with spurring the diplomatic breakthrough, writing to Cuban President Raúl Castro and President Barack Obama last year and urging them to unite in addressing "humanitarian issues of common interest." In December, the countries announced they would resume diplomatic relations.

Quoting Martí -- the Cuban revolutionary and titan of Latin American literature, after whom Havana's airport is named -- Francis said: "It is a sign of the victory of the culture of encounter and dialogue, 'the system of universal growth' over 'the forever-dead system of groups and dynasties.' "

Francis, the first Jesuit pope and the first from Latin America, thanked the Cuban government and people, extending "particular respect and consideration" to the president's brother, former Cuban President Fidel Castro. Speaking in his native Spanish, he also acknowledged the "indelible path" to Cuba forged by his predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who both visited the island.

The pope was greeted warmly by Castro and Cardinal Jaime Ortega y Alamino of Havana. A group of young boys and girls handed him flowers, and he gave each child a hug.

Francis then stood by Castro's side as a band played the Cuban national anthem, punctuated by cannon fire.

"May Cuba, with all its magnificent potential, open itself to the world, and may the world open itself to Cuba," Francis said afterward, quoting John Paul from that pope's visit to Havana in 1998.

In his remarks, Castro thanked the pope for his role in facilitating the U.S.-Cuba dialogue and called for the U.S. to end its "blockade" -- the U.S. embargo against the communist nation in place since 1962.

"The blockade, which causes human damages and privations to the Cuban family, is cruel, immoral and illegal, and it should cease," Castro said.

He also praised the pope's recent encyclical on the environment and climate change, saying it has "moved me to a profound reflection."

Castro requested the U.S. turn over its Guantánamo Naval Base to Cuba and called for an end to "the predatory action of the wealthy nations and the big transnationals."

"The current international system is unfair and immoral," he said. "It has globalized capital and turned money into its idol."

The streets to Havana were lined Saturday afternoon with thousands of people -- many waving Cuban and Vatican flags -- watching the pope ride in his specially made Peugeot pickup truck to the Vatican diplomatic mission. Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi estimated the crowd may have reached 100,000.

Yudelkis Geigel, 32, said she hoped Francis would be an emissary for the Cuban people.

"We hope God will help us and that when His Holiness goes to the United States, he can be our advocate," Geigel told The Associated Press as she stood among the throngs lining the streets. "He's Latin American, he's Argentine, he feels for us and our need to end this blockade."

En route to Havana, Francis hinted at some of the themes he is likely to stress during his trip, the longest of his papacy.

He spoke about immigrants, refugees and world peace, and said he visited a Syrian refugee family that the Vatican is housing before he left for Cuba. The pope has called on countries around the world to take in some of the refugees currently spilling out of some European countries.

Francis' visit to Cuba continues Sunday with a major outdoor Mass at the Plaza de la Revolucion, where a huge image of the Argentine revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara adorns a nearby government building.

He is scheduled to travel Monday to the cities of Holguin and Santiago and depart for the United States on Tuesday, where he will meet with Obama and address Congress -- marking the first time a pontiff addresses that body.

His trip culminates next Saturday in Philadelphia with an outdoor Mass on Benjamin Franklin Parkway, expected to attract 1 million people, that will conclude the weeklong World Meeting of Families, a Catholic conference on family values.

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