Havana (SFGate) - Pope Benedict XVI will visit Communist-run Cuba this spring, a senior Roman Catholic Church official said Thursday, the first trip by a pontiff since John Paul II's historic tour in 1998.
The exact date of the trip, which coincides with the 400th anniversary of Cuba's patron saint, will be announced in Rome early next week, according to Monsignor Jose Felix Perez, executive secretary of the Cuban Bishops Conference.
Cuba's church has played an increasingly important role in Cuba in recent years, helping negotiate the release of political prisoners in 2009 and 2010, and even consulting with President Raul Castro and his advisers on free-market changes he is pushing to save the island's economy from ruin.
Vatican officials have said that the pope also is considering a visit to Mexico, and the Monday date for announcing the schedule for his trip coincides with celebrations of Mexico's patron saint, the Virgin of Guadalupe. Benedict, 84, has limited his travels mostly to Europe, both to spare him from long trips and to focus his efforts on a continent where Christianity has fallen by the wayside. He did visit Brazil in 2007.
After the 1959 Cuban Revolution, as Fidel Castro increasingly embraced Marxism and the Soviet Union, anticlerical actions increased: Authorities discouraged Christmas celebrations, closed religious schools in 1962 and barred Communist Party membership to people of religious belief. But relations began easing after the Cold War.