Pope calls on Cubans to reject ideology

Pope Francis greeting Cubans after arriving on the island for a four-day visit on Saturday.
Pope Francis greeting Cubans after arriving on the island for a four-day visit on Saturday.PHOTO: REUTERS

Pontiff's call comes amid period of economic, political transition

HAVANA• • Cubans must "serve others, not be served by others", Pope Francis said yesterday at a Mass in Havana's Revolution Square, urging them to reject ideology in the biggest event of his four-day trip to the communist island.

The Pope's homily did not directly address Cuba's political situation or its nascent rapprochement with the United States, which he helped to broker. But he warned against personal ambition and an every-man-for-himself mentality at a time when Cuba faces a delicate period of economic and political transition.

"Christians are constantly called to set aside their own wishes and desires, their pursuit of power, and to look instead to those who are most vulnerable," he told hundreds of thousands of fans and faithful gathered in the iconic square.

"We need to be careful not to be tempted by another kind of service, a 'service' which is 'self-serving'," he said. "Service is never ideological, for we do not serve ideas, we serve people."

Tens of thousands of Cubans attended the Mass at the huge plaza where Cubans celebrate May Day beneath massive portraits of revolutionary leaders Ernesto "Che" Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos built into the facades of government buildings.

Pope Francis, who arrived on Saturday, had earlier exhorted Cuba and the United States to deepen their recent rapprochement. "I urge political leaders to persevere on this path and to develop all its potentialities... as an example of reconciliation for the entire world," he said.

Many Cubans appreciate the Pope for his role in the secret talks that led to last December's historic detente, when Cuban President Raul Castro and US President Barack Obama vowed to normalise relations and end more than half a century of Cold War-era animosity.

Mr Castro, who received the Pope at the airport, thanked the pontiff for his help with the US rapprochement, but also used his welcoming speech to criticise Washington's embargo and its occupation of the Guantanamo naval base on the eastern tip of the Caribbean island.

Cuba will welcome any papal condemnation of the US embargo, which persists despite Mr Obama's policy change as only the US Congress can lift it. The Republican leadership in Congress has defied Mr Obama's calls to do so.

But Mr Castro's government will also be sensitive to any criticism of its one-party political system or repression of dissidents.

Police had detained dozens of dissidents to stop them from attending papal events and a similar number were threatened or warned, Mr Elizardo Sanchez, head of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, said on Saturday.

Among them were three dissidents whose detention kept them from a meeting with the Pope, said Ms Berta Soler, leader of the three-member dissident group Ladies in White.

Although Pope Francis did not overtly criticise the government on Saturday, he said he would like his greeting "to embrace especially all those who, for various reasons, I will not be able to meet, and to Cubans throughout the world".

He was clearly referring to Cuban exiles around the world, including the strident anti-communists who settled in south Florida in the early years after the 1959 revolution led by Mr Fidel Castro.

Some believed he was also referring to political opponents of Cuba's government who are in prison.

Pope Francis was also expected to meet retired leader Fidel Castro, the 89-year-old father of Cuba's 1959 revolution, during the trip.

He will fly from Cuba to Washington tomorrow for meetings with Mr Obama and addresses to the US Congress and the United Nations.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 21, 2015, with the headline 'Pope calls on Cubans to reject ideology'. Print Edition | Subscribe