Monday April 04, 2005
President Fidel Castro praised Pope John Paul II Monday for his support of world peace and defense of the poor before joining other communist leaders, diplomats and church officials at Havana’s cathedral for a funeral Mass in the pontiff’s honor. “Rest in peace, tireless fighter for peace, friendship among peoples, enemy of war, friend of the poor,” Castro wrote Monday afternoon in the condolences book at the Papal Nunico, the Vatican’s mission in Havana.
Cuba never broke ties with the Vatican, even during the years that the island was officially atheist in the years after the 1959 revolution that brought Castro to power. The government removed references to atheism in the constitution in 1991 and allowed religious believers to join the Communist Party.
Accompanied by his younger brother and designated successor, Defense Minister Raul Castro, President Castro also recalled John Paul as an “unforgettable friend” who would be remembered on the island for speaking out against the U.S. trade embargo during his January 1998 visit.
The Cuban president, dressed in a dark suit and tie, later traveled to the Havana cathedral for the Mass celebrated by the island’s highest ranking Roman Catholic churchman, Cardinal Jaime Ortega.
Ortega was leaving later in the evening for Rome, where he will attend John Paul’s funeral and participate in the gathering of cardinals who will elect a new pope.
Church officials said it was the first time Castro had been inside the cathedral in decades.
Other high-ranking communist officials at the Monday Mass included Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque, National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon, Culture Minister Abel Prieto, Vice President Carlos Lage, and Vice President Jose Ramon Hernandez.
State television announced that Alarcon would head Cuba’s delegation to the papal funeral on Friday. Other delegation members will include Caridad Diego, head of religious affairs for Cuba’s Communist Party, and Cuba’s new ambassador to the Vatican, Raul Roa Kouri.