HAVANA – HAVANA (AP) — Cuba's Roman Catholic leadership hopes Pope Benedict XVI can visit in 2012, a bishop said Thursday, in what would be the first papal trip to Cuba since John Paul II came in 1998.
Monsignor Emilio Aranguren, bishop of the eastern province of Holguin, said "it's our hope, our interest, that the pope come to Cuba in the year 2012," the 400th anniversary of the discovery of Cuba's patron saint.
"It's up to the Holy See," he said. The Vatican had no immediate comment.
In 1612, three men from the eastern copper mining town of El Cobre found a diminutive wooden statue floating off the coast bearing the label, "I am the Virgin of Charity." She was declared patron saint in 1916.
Aranguren's comments came at a briefing on the activities of Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, the Vatican's foreign minister, who is in Havana to mark Catholic Social Week. He said Mamberti's visit has nothing to do with a possible papal visit.
The Catholic Church has recently become a major political voice on the island. In May, Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega negotiated an end to a ban on marches by a small group of wives and mothers of political prisoners known as the Ladies in White.
The cardinal and another church leader subsequently met with President Raul Castro for four hours. Church officials then announced the government would transfer political prisoners held far from their families and give better access to medical care for inmates who need it. It also freed prisoner Ariel Sigler for health reasons.
Members of Cuba's small opposition community hope the Mamberti visit could lead to freedom for more political prisoners or a new round of transfers. Aranguren said Thursday that Mamberti likely will meet with Castro before he leaves Sunday, but has no plans to meet with dissidents.
In 1998, John Paul II made the first papal trip to Cuba. The Vatican's No. 2, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, visited the island a decade later.
Cuba never broke ties with the Vatican, even when the island was officially atheist after the 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power. The government removed references to atheism in the 1991 constitution and allowed religious believers to join the Communist Party.