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Pope Francis evokes revered symbols for Cubans in first speech

Pope Francis shakes hands with Cuban President Raul

Pope Francis shakes hands with Cuban President Raul Castro during his arrival ceremony at the airport in Havana, Cuba on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2015. Credit: AP / Cubadebate / Ismael Francisco

From the revolutionary José Martí to Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, Pope Francis evoked hallowed symbols of the Cuban people as he arrived Saturday in a country that is mostly Catholic but has relatively few churchgoers after more than five decades of communist rule.

It was veterans of Cuba's 1898 War of Independence who, "moved by sentiments of faith and patriotism," wanted Our Lady of Charity to be the new nation's patroness, Francis said during a welcoming ceremony at José Martí International Airport in Havana.

He added, "The growing devotion to the Virgin is a visible testimony of her presence in the soul of the Cuban people."

The pope also cited Martí, a poet and beloved Cuban hero who gave his life in the fight for independence, saying that Martí dreamed the country would be "a point of encounter for all peoples to join in friendship."

Francis did some bridge-building himself, asking President Raúl Castro "to convey my sentiments of particular respect and consideration to your brother Fidel" -- who had shut Catholic churches and driven out priests and sisters after the Cuban revolution.

From Francis' opening remarks, themes of political reconciliation and evangelization began to emerge.

Even as relations between the Catholic Church and the Cuban government slowly improve, the task ahead for church leaders is formidable: Sixty percent of the Cuban population is Catholic but, according to the organization Aid to the Church in Need, just 2 percent attend Mass regularly.

The pope sought to call Cuban Catholics back to their historical connection to the church. He noted that he will go "as a son and pilgrim" to the shrine of the Madonna at El Cobre, near Santiago.

"He's really evoking an image of Mary that is very tied to Cuban national identity. Both on the island and in the diaspora, she is the patroness of Cuba, whose devotion rose to prominence during the struggle for independence," said Michelle Gonzalez Maldonado, professor of religious studies at the University of Miami and author of "Afro-Cuban Theology." "And she's a Catholic religious symbol that has in many ways embodied the heart of Catholicism on the island and the perseverance of Catholicism on the island."

Francis has long identified with such devotions that emerge from the people, and they offer a channel for him to reach those who have maintained religious traditions but have little connection to the church.

The pope, due to arrive in Washington on Tuesday, comes to Havana with the goodwill of having played a key role in helping Cuba and the U.S. re-establish diplomatic relations.

"Just as he enabled the U.S. and Cuba to get together diplomatically, he's connecting his trip to the two places to remind Americans, and especially those critics of détente, that the U.S. belongs to the Americas and Cuba is a part of the Americas that's been made to suffer because of U.S. policy," said the Rev. Drew Christiansen, a professor at Georgetown University and former editor of America magazine.

Francis alluded to the United States in his remarks, saying that normalizing relations "is a sign of the victory of the culture of encounter and dialogue."

Still, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom reported this year, "Serious religious freedom violations continue in Cuba, despite improvements for government-approved religious groups."

Religion is strictly regulated through the Office of Religious Affairs of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party. The agency said independent evangelical churches continue to face a great deal of harassment from the government, with arrests of leaders.

The registered churches, including the Catholic Church and major Protestant denominations, have seen a slow improvement in relations. The commission added that the Catholic Church was permitted last year to build its first new church in Cuba in more than 55 years.

"They are two institutions that are cautiously in dialogue with each other, and I think that very slowly, the Catholic Church has become a stronger presence on the island," Maldonado said. "Very slowly, the Cuban government has allowed the church to become that presence. I think they're moving very carefully, and will continue to do so."

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