The daughter of Cuban President Raul Castro sponsored a blessing ceremony Saturday for gay couples on an island where gay marriage remains illegal.

Nearly two dozen gay couples held hands or embraced, some crying, as Protestant clergymen from the U.S. and Canada blessed them as 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.

While she was careful not to call Saturday's ceremony a wedding, the event had most of the trappings of matrimony.

Luis Enrique Mederos and his partner for 14 years, Alain Morales, approached clergyman including Troy Perry, founder of Los Angeles' gay-friendly Metropolitan Community Church, and held hands beneath a canopy while the pastors blessed their relationship.

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"Luis, I give you my life," Morales said, as the crowd of 300 applauded and cheered.

"It's a step to strengthen our relationship because we're both religious, believers," said Mederos, a 47-year-old graphic designer. He said he saw the ceremony as an important step toward the eventual legalization of gay marriage in Cuba.

"It's a dream for the Cuban gay and transgender community that one day it won't be just a symbolic and we can get married, because we're also part of this changing world," he said, embracing Morales, 38.

Uruguay, Argentina and a string of U.S. states, along with several in Mexico, have legalized gay marriage or civil unions.

Homosexuals were hounded and persecuted during much of the presidency of Fidel Castro. After handing power to his brother Raul, the elder Castro said he regretted his treatment of gays, and Cuba has been granting increasing rights to gays in recent years.

Mariela Castro, who is the most visible gay rights advocate on the island, uses her position as a member of Cuba's ruling family to push for reforms. Last year, as a member of parliament, she voted against a workers' rights bill that she felt didn't go far enough to prevent discrimination against people with HIV or with unconventional gender identities.

It was an unprecedented action in an assembly that uniformly votes unanimously in favor of government proposals.

Castro did not attend the blessing ceremony, but headed a colorful gay rights march by more than 1,000 people along one of Havana's main streets.

A few minutes after Mederos and Morales, Belkis Gonzalez and Maria de los Angeles Machin stepped up to receive their blessing. A couple since 1989, they raised Machin's son and Gonzalez's daughter together.

"This blessing means a lot to us," said Gonzalez, a 48-year-old screenwriter. "It's a reaffirmation that we have a relationship of love and we aren't hurting anyone. If God put us together, it's because we wanted us to be united."

The event came a day before another manifestation of changed times in Cuba: Raul Castro's visit with Pope Francis at the Vatican.

The church and the Cuban government were in a state of open hostility in the years after the 1959 revolution that put Fidel Castro in power. But a thaw began in the 1990s. Cuba removed a constitutional clause declaring the country an atheist state, Pope John Paul II paid a momentous visit in 1998, Pope Benedict XVI visited in 2012, and Cuba made Good Friday an official holiday.

Raul Castro was expected to discuss both diplomatic talks with the U.S. and the pope's planned September visit to Cuba when he visits the pontiff on Sunday.

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