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Pope arrives in Cuba on mission to renew the faith

Pope Benedict XVI followed in the footsteps of his predecessor's groundbreaking trip to Cuba on Monday, hoping to renew the faith in Latin America's least Catholic country.

Cuban President Raul Castro came to the airport in the eastern city of Santiago to welcome Benedict, just days after the pope declared the island's Marxist system outdated. Unlike in Mexico, where multitudes showed up to greet the pope at the airport, normal citizens were kept away from Cuba's tightly controlled arrival ceremony.

The pontiff was scheduled to rally tens of thousands of believers at an outdoor Mass in the colonial city's main square on a blue-and-white platform crowned by graceful arches in the shape of a papal miter. Then he was to spend the night beside the shrine of Cuba's patron saint, the Virgin of Charity of Cobre.

Benedict's three-day stay in Cuba will inevitably spark comparisons to John Paul II's historic 1998 tour, when Fidel Castro traded his army fatigues for a suit and tie to greet the pope at Havana's airport and where John Paul uttered the now-famous words: "May Cuba, with all its magnificent potential, open itself up to the world, and may the world open itself up to Cuba."

Those comparisons were also evident in Mexico, which had claimed John Paul as its own during his five visits over a nearly 27-year pontificate. But with his first trip to Mexico, Benedict appeared to lay to rest the impression that he is a distant, cold pontiff who can never compete with the charisma and personal connection forged by his predecessor.

"Some young people rejected the pope, saying he has an angry face. But now they see him like a grandfather," said Cristian Roberto Cerda Reynoso, 17, a seminarian from Leon, Mexico, who was among an estimated 350,000 people who attended Benedict's Sunday Mass. "I see the youth filled with excitement and enthusiasm."

The welcome is likely to be less fervent in Cuba, where only about 10 percent of the people are practicing Catholics. Still, the government is helping bring out crowds by laying on special transportation and giving residents a paid day off to attend the Mass in Santiago, and another on Wednesday in the capital.

The political overtones of the visit, however, are more pronounced than they were in Mexico, even if he is unlikely to create a diplomatic flap by aggressively challenging his hosts on Cuban soil.

Benedict has been sharply critical of socialism in the past, and when he began his journey to the Americas last week, he told reporters it is "evident that Marxist ideology as it was conceived no longer responds to reality." He exhorted Cubans to "find new models, with patience, and in a constructive way."

Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez responded with restraint: "We consider the exchange of ideas to be useful. Our people have deep convictions developed over the course of our history ... Cuba will listen with all respect to his holiness."

Cuba's single-party, Communist government never outlawed religion, but it expelled priests and closed religious schools after Fidel Castro's takeover of Cuba in 1959. Tensions eased in the early 1990s when the government removed references to atheism in the constitution and let believers of all faiths join the Communist Party.

John Paul's 1998 visit further warmed relations.

But despite years of lobbying, the church has virtually no access to state-run radio or television, is not allowed to administer schools and has not been granted permission to build new places of worship. The island of 11.2 million people has just 361 priests. Before 1959 there were 700 priests for a population of 6 million.

The Catholic Church, however, is now the most influential independent institution in the country, thanks in no small part to Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the archbishop of Havana. He has negotiated with Raul Castro for the release of political prisoners, given the government advice on economic policy and allowed church magazines to publish increasingly frank articles about the need for change.

In the weeks leading up to Benedict's arrival, the government cracked down on dissidents with warnings and brief detentions. But on Sunday, the dissident group known as the Ladies in White held its customary weekly protest outside a Havana church without incident.

The Vatican has said the pope has no plans to meet with the dissidents, or with the leaders of the island's dominant Afro-Cuban Santeria faith. More likely but still unconfirmed is a face-to-face with Fidel Castro, who stepped down in 2006 but remains the father of the revolution and is still referred to as "El Comandante." A new wildcard entered into play with the arrival Saturday of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who is getting radiation therapy for his cancer.

The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, was asked about reports the pope might meet with Chavez while in Cuba and said that as of Sunday morning, there were no such plans.

"That can change, anything can change," he told reporters.

The pope also avoided meeting opposition politicians in Mexico, though all three major candidates in this year's presidential race attended Sunday's Mass.

Benedict left Mexico Monday as a mariachi band serenaded his plane and a crowd of hundreds waves flags and Vatican-yellow balloons.

"My brief but intense visit to Mexico is now coming to an end. Yet this is not the end of my affection and my closeness to a country so very dear to me," he said on the tarmac.

"I wish to reiterate clearly and with vigor a plea to the Mexican people to remain faithful to yourselves, not to let yourselves be intimidated by the powers of evil," he said, apparently alluding to drug violence and corruption. He urged Mexicans "to be valiant and to work to ensure that the sap of your Christian roots may nourish your present and your future."

Benedict charmed the crowd at Sunday's Mass by donning a sombrero for his popemobile tour through the sea of worshippers. He put on another later Sunday night when he was serenaded by a mariachi band as he returned to the school where he has been staying.

"We saw a lot of happiness in his face. We are used to seeing him with a harder appearance, but this time he looked happier, smiling," said Esther Villegas, a 36-year-old cosmetics vendor. "A lot of people didn't care for him enough before, but now he has won us over."