300 000 in Revolution Square Havana with Pope Francisco

HAVANA, Sept. 20  ( Havana Times – dpa)  Pope Francis will celebrate mass on Sunday in the Plaza of the Revolution in Havana, one of the most anticipated events of his four-day visit to Cuba.

Tens of thousands of the faithful and supporters of the government of Raul Castro began arriving in the early morning hours to the Plaza in the central district of Vedado, converted for decades into a symbol of the Cuban revolution.

Following the open-air mass the Argentine pope is scheduled to hold an official meeting on Sunday afternoon with Cuban president Raul Castro.

Francisco’s predecessors, John Paul II (1998) and Benedict XVI (2012), also officiated mass in the Plaza of the Revolution, known for its huge relief image of the Argentine-Cuban guerrilla Ernesto “Che” Guevara placed on a nearby building.

Argentina’s President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner will also be in the square for the mass as a special guest of her Cuban counterpart Raul Castro.

Political opposition groups announced in advance that they also want to go to attend the mass. However, many fear that the authorities would not allow them to reach the square.

The situation of the Church has improved considerably since the 90s in Cuba, which clamped down on the church hierarchy after the triumph of the 1959 revolution.

Numerous Catholic priests had to leave the country in the years following the arrival of Fidel Castro to power.

Especially the visit of John Paul II in 1998 prompted the revival of the Catholic faith in the Caribbean island. The Catholic Church claims that 60 percent of Cubans are baptized, although only two percent regularly go to church, according to figures of the Cuban Episcopal Conference.

Francisco’s visit to Cuba has a high political profile do to his role of mediator in the rapprochement between the governments of Havana and Washington.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio will travel Tuesday September 22 directly from Santiago de Cuba to the United States as part of a nine-day itinerary symbolic linking both countries.