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Castro Makes Christmas A Holiday As Early Gift To Pope Relations Get Friendlier As Jan. 21-25 Visit Approaches

Pope John Paul II sent Christmas greetings to the Cuban people Saturday, rejoicing that the communist government declared this Dec. 25 an official holiday to honor his coming visit to the island.

“That this brilliant day has once again become a holiday in this country is a reason for much happiness,” said the message, which took up much of the front page of Granma, the Communist Party newspaper.

Saying he hopes his message will reach “those who have the grave responsibility of directing the nation’s destiny,” the pontiff called Christmas “part of the religious and cultural patrimony of Cuba.”

Scores of devout Roman Catholics applauded Saturday morning after Cardinal Jaime Ortega read the message aloud during an outdoor Mass he celebrated outside the towering San Francisco de Paula parish church.

“This is wonderful, just what we were waiting for,” said Daisy del Toro, a doctor who works full time as a church volunteer. “The Lord has been great with us.”

Having the papal message published in the party newspaper “is a huge gain, a triumph for the Cuban Catholic people,” said Aida Martin, 24, who attended the Mass with her husband.

Cubans lined up at newsstands early Saturday to buy a copy of the paper.

The pope’s message was also read Saturday morning on the government-controlled Radio Reloj news station.

Ortega and other leading Cuban bishops delivered a copy of John Paul’s message to President Fidel Castro during a rare meeting Thursday night, which church officials say lasted eight hours.

Granma also reported Saturday on Castro’s meeting with the bishops, characterizing it as “constructive and friendly.”

Castro has become increasingly accommodating toward the church as the pope’s Jan. 21-25 visit approaches. Last weekend, he said his government would grant several church requests, including the declaration of Dec. 25 this year as an official holiday. During a three-hour speech to parliament, Castro also vowed to give the church access to government-controlled media to advertise the papal visit and to help with public transportation to the papal Masses.

In one section of his message, the pope made it clear he hopes his visit will have a long-lasting effect on Cuba.

“I hope that after my visit, the Church … can continue having, more and more, the liberty necessary to carry out its mission and adequate space to continue serving the Cuban people,” John Paul wrote.

For Ortega, that was key.

“The pope comes to give us an internal strength, to awaken values, to awaken hope,” he said after the Mass. “It will be something very positive. That is what I want for Cuba.”


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