Vatican Cardinal Travels to Cuba

The Vatican's secretary of state said Thursday he hopes his visit to Cuba could give "a new push" to sometimes-strained relations between the communist government and the island's Roman Catholic Church.

Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican's No. 2 official, arrived late Wednesday on a trip commemorating the 10-year anniversary of Pope John Paul II's visit to Cuba. In an address to 15 assembled Cuban bishops, he said current Pope Benedict XVI "knows the situation of the Cuban church well, carries it in his heart and has it very present in his prayers."

"I harbor the hope that this celebration of the anniversary of the visit by Pope John Paul II to this blessed land contributes to giving a new push to relations between the state and the Catholic Church of Cuba," Bertone said. "So that, in the spirit of respect and mutual understanding, the Church can perform with necessary freedom its strictly pastoral mission and be at the service of its faithful."

The meeting was closed to international reporters, but the Vatican's press office released the text of his speech.

Bertone's visit began a day after 81-year-old Fidel Castro announced that he will permanently step down as president after 49 years in power. But the cardinal said the trip — which was scheduled before the announcement — is purely pastoral.

Relations have historically been troubled between the Vatican and Cuba under Castro. The single-party government never outlawed religion but expelled priests and closed religious schools upon Castro's takeover of Cuba in 1959.

Relations eased in the early 1990s when the government removed references to atheism in the constitution and let people of all faiths join the Communist Party. They warmed more with John Paul's 1998 visit — the first to Cuba by a pope.

Bertone's is the highest-level visit to Cuba by a Vatican official under Benedict XVI.

The cardinal is scheduled to meet next week with top officials including Fidel Castro's younger brother Raul, who has ruled provisionally for the last 19 months and is expected to be chosen as the new president when parliament meets on Sunday.