Vatican Urges Cuba on Religion

By Bob Melvin | July 7, 2008 | 8:07 PM EDT

( - Cuba's foreign minister called on Pope John Paul II in Vatican City on Monday, and the Vatican used the occasion to push for more religious freedom on the communist-run island. It is not the first time His Holiness has addressed directly the issues of personal freedoms with Cuban officials.

The pontiff granted Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque a private audience, and Roque also met with the Vatican's secretary of state and foreign minister.

Regarding church-state relations, "the minister has restated the will of his government to favor a mutual, harmonious collaboration," Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said.

"For its part, the Holy See has expressed a wish for ever greater religious liberty in the wake of what the Holy Father affirmed in his historic visit in January 1998," the Vatican spokesman said.

During his visit to Cuba, John Paul made blunt calls for more freedoms, including that of expression.

After nearly 40 years of tensions after the 1959 Cuban revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power, church-state relations have improved only over the last few years, especially following John Paul's visit. Cuba has a dominantly Roman Catholic heritage among its population.

Christmas, for example, has been reinstated as a permanent holiday on the island thanks to the pope's visit.