Church confirms pope to visit Cuba in spring

By ANNE-MARIE GARCIA | December 8, 2011 | 11:45 AM EST

Monsignor Jose Felix Perez speaks to the press regarding the Pope's visit next spring to Cuba, in Havana, Cuba, Thursday Dec. 8, 2011. Perez said Pope Benedict XVI will announce the date on Monday. In 1998, Cuba received a historic visit from Pope John Paul II. (AP Photo/Franklin Reyes)

HAVANA (AP) — Pope Benedict XVI will visit Cuba this spring, a senior Roman Catholic Church official said Thursday.

Benedict's trip to the island will be the first by a pope since John Paul II's historic appearance before throngs of Cuban Catholics in 1998 that helped heal decades of tensions between the Vatican and Fidel Castro's Cuba.

"It will be a moment for energizing the faith in Cuba. It will give strength and vigor to the faith in Cuba," said Perez Monsignor Jose Felix Perez, executive secretary of the Cuban Bishops Conference, adding that Benedict would announce the date next Monday.

"The visit should be one of peace and reconciliation."

Vatican officials have said that the pope also is considering a visit to Mexico, and the day for announcing the schedule for his trip coincides with celebrations of Mexico's patron saint, the Virgin of Guadalupe. He visited Brazil in 2007

Benedict, 84. has limited his travels mostly to Europe, both to spare him from long trips and to focus his efforts on a continent where Christianity has fallen by the wayside. He did visit Brazil in 2007 and has said he hopes to return in 2013 for World Youth Day, the church's youth festival. And he has a trip to Benin coming up later this month, his second to Africa in his six-year-pontificate.

Cuba and the Vatican never severed ties under Castro, but relations were long strained following the 1959 Cuban Revolution.

As Castro increasingly embraced Marxism and the Soviet Union, anti-clerical actions increased. Authorities discourages Christmas celebrations, closed religious schools in 1962 and barred Communist Party membership to people of religious belief.

Following the end of the Cold War, Cuba removed references to atheism from the constitution in the 1990s and allowed believers of all faiths to join the party.

Then came John Paul's visit in 1998, when Castro shed his trademark olive-green fatigues for a business suit and tie and to greet the pope personally at the airport.

The pontiff celebrated a mass at a packed Revolution Square, calling for "Cuba to open to the world, and the world to open to Cuba."

Today the church plays a significant role on the island, notably helping negotiate a deal for the release of the last of 75 opposition activists, intellectuals and social commentators who were imprisoned in a 2003 crackdown on dissent.

The last was freed earlier this year under a deal brokered by Cardinal Jaime Ortega. Many went into exile in Spain with their families.