Pope Francis Considers Stop in Cuba as Part of U.S. Trip

 havana-live-pope-francisHAVANA, 17 April — Pope Francis is considering a visit to Cuba when he travels to the U.S. in September, said a person familiar with the situation, a move that would provide political support to both nations’ controversial attempts to restore diplomatic ties after more than a half century.

The Argentine pontiff may add a stop in the island nation, either before or after his time in the U.S., but he has yet to make a final decision, the person said. Pope Francis is expected to make his first visit to the U.S. as pontiff in September, with stops in Washington, D.C., New York and Philadelphia.

A trip to Cuba would inject a new element of drama into a trip that is already hotly anticipated, with the pope scheduled to address a joint session of Congress and the United Nations. President Barack Obama is also expected to host the pontiff at the White House.

Washington and Havana are in talks intended to culminate in the re-establishment of diplomatic relations, which were severed in 1961 after the Cuban revolution. This week, Mr. Obama backed the removal of Cuba from a list of state sponsors of terrorism, potentially removing one barrier to the rapprochement. But opposition to a normalization of relations remains strong in the U.S. Congress, where a vote would be needed to lift the American embargo on the island.

In what his secretary of state called an example of more “proactive” Vatican diplomacy under Pope Francis, the pontiff played a major role in helping to broker a deal in December to normalize relations between the U.S. and Cuba.

Pope Francis, who followed his predecessors in calling for an end to U.S. travel and financial restrictions on Cuba, wrote letters to Mr. Obama and Cuba’s President Raúl Castro urging them to settle outstanding issues and clear the way for a deal.

If Pope Francis travels to Cuba, it will be the third visit by a pope to the country. St. John Paul II made a historic visit to the country in 1998—the first papal visit ever—in a trip that helped improve relations between the church and the government.

The first papal visit ushered in a period of gradually increasing freedom for the Catholic Church in Cuba. The government made Christmas a national holiday and permitted Communist Party members to identify themselves as practicing Catholics.

In 2010 and 2011, Cardinal Jaime Ortega Alamino of Havana brokered deals for the release of more than 100 political prisoners, most of whom then went into exile abroad.

In preparation for the 400th anniversary of the Virgin of Charity of El Cobre, in 2012, the statue of Cuba’s patron saint was allowed to circulate on a pilgrimage throughout Cuba, an event Mr. Castro said “brought our people together, believers and nonbelievers.”

Pope Benedict XVI made a three-day tour of Cuba in March of that year, celebrating a Mass attended by Mr. Castro. He also met privately with former President Fidel Castro in what the Vatican spokesman afterward described as a cordial encounter.
During his visit, Pope Benedict repeated his predecessor’s call for an end to the U.S. embargo.Following Pope Benedict’s visit, at the pope’s request, Mr. Castro declared that Good Friday would also be a national holiday.