A day before Cuban President Raul Castro visits the Vatican, his daughter has sponsored a blessing ceremony for gay couples on an island where gay marriage remains illegal.

Nearly two dozen gay couples held hands or embraced as American and Canadian Protestant clergyman blessed them Saturday. It was part of official ceremonies leading up to the Global Day against Homophobia on May 17.

Castro's daughter Mariela heads Cuba's Center for Sex Education, which has been pushing for gay rights in a country with a history of persecuting homosexuals.

Cuba has also been growing closer to the Catholic Church, which had a troubled relationship with the communist government during much of the Cold War. Mariela Castro was careful not to call Saturday's ceremony a wedding.