HAVANA, Jan. 20 -- Pope John Paul II begins a five-day trip to Cuba that has already had a significant impact on one of the world's last communist nations. The pope leaves Rome at 10 a.m. EST today and will arrive at 4 p.m. at Havana's Jose Marti Airport, where he will be greeted by President Fidel Castro and deliver an arrival address.
In anticipation of the trip, Castro lifted the ban on Christmas celebrations for the first time in almost 30 years and has urged Cubans to attend four papal masses scheduled at separate locations on the island during the trip. He also asked those attending not to hold up signs, shout slogans or create any kind of disturbance during the open-air services. Residents say food rations have been increased slightly in advance of the visit.Castro declared Cuba an atheist nation when he took control in 1959, and in 1961 he expelled about 130 Catholic priests. But he has since relaxed his position and in 1992, abandoned atheism as his government's official doctrine. Among the highlights of the week are a meeting between the pope and Castro Thursday evening and a mass in the Plaza of Revolution in Havana Sunday morning. Other masses will be held in Santa Clara Thursday, Camaguey Friday and Santiago de Cuba Saturday. Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the archbishop of Havana, says despite Pope John Paul's meeting with Castro, the trip will be pastoral, not political, in nature. Ortega described it as a visit not to the Cuban government but to the Cuban Church and the Cuban people, who he says have experienced 'a religious reawakening.' ---
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