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Latest update : 2008-02-27

Vatican secretary of state Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone raised the Catholic Church's concern over the fate of Cuban prisoners in a meeting with new President Raul Castro in Havana on Tuesday.

HAVANA, Feb 26 (Reuters) - Vatican secretary of state
Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone raised the Catholic Church's concern
about prisoners in Cuba in a meeting with Cuban President Raul
Castro on Tuesday.

It was Raul Castro's first meeting with a foreign visitor
two days after succeeding his ailing brother Fidel Castro as
the new leader of the communist-run country.

"With the greatest respect for the sovereignty of the
country and its citizens, I expressed to President Raul Castro
the concern of the Church over the prisoners and their
families," Bertone said at Havana airport before his

The Vatican's No. 2 official did not specify whether he was
referring to jailed dissidents or common prisoners. Human
rights groups say 230 Cubans are behind bars for expressing
political views and are being held in overcrowded prisons.

Bertone said he hoped his six-day visit had given a new
push to once strained ties between the Cuban state and the
Catholic Church 10 years after Pope John Paul's historic trip
to the island.

But he said the relations would always be "challenging."

Raul Castro donned a business suit instead of his brown
general's uniform to receive the cardinal in the government
headquarters overlooking Havana's Revolution Square.

Bertone's visit brought a welcome boost to the Church in
Cuba through greater exposure in the state-controlled media.

Cuban television broadcast live on Monday a news conference
where Bertone, in response to a question, welcomed the recent
release of four political prisoners, though he said he had not
pressed for an amnesty for other jailed dissidents.

A mass led by the cardinal in Havana's cathedral was also
broadcast live on Cuban television.

The visit coincided with Raul Castro becoming Cuba's first
new leader in almost half a century on Sunday, following the
retirement of Fidel Castro, 81 and in ill health.

The younger Castro has fostered debate among Cubans on the
economic hardships they face, vowing to improve their standard
of living while sticking to socialism in Cuba.

In a rare gesture to the Church, the ruling Communist Party
newspaper Granma published on Tuesday a statement by the
Catholic Bishops of Cuba calling on the government to move
quickly to resolve the most pressing problems facing Cubans.

After Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, priests were
expelled and Catholics faced decades of official atheism.

The Catholic Church is the only major institution in Cuba
that is not controlled by the state and is expected to play an
important social role in any post-Castro transition.

But it has not been allowed to build new churches, play a
role in education or gain access to radio broadcasting.

Cuban authorities promised Bertone they will open up the
media more to the Church, the Catholic news agency SIR, which
is close to the Italian Bishops' Conference, reported in Rome
on Tuesday.

The authorities had promised "more openings in written
media and radio, and in certain exceptional cases, even
television," SIR quoted Bertone as telling Cuban Catholic media
in a report from a correspondent in Havana.

Date created : 2008-02-27