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Castro signs pope's condolence book

Hundreds of Cubans have gone to the Vatican Embassy

From Lucia Newman
CNN Havana Bureau Chief

Fidel Castro
John Paul II

HAVANA, Cuba (CNN) -- Cuban President Fidel Castro added his name Monday to the long list of Cubans who have signed a condolence book at the Vatican Embassy in Havana after the death of Pope John Paul II.

Dressed in a black suit rather than his usual olive-green uniform, Castro looked emotional as he read out his message: "Your departure pains us, dear friend. We wish with fervor that your example will endure."

John Paul II was the first pope to visit Cuba, and many observers speculated that the pontiff's trip would help spur political change on the island, as it did in Poland, his homeland.

Castro wrote, "The efforts by those who wanted to use your prestige and your enormous spiritual authority against the just cause of our people in their struggle against the giant empire [the United States] were in vain."

Shortly after the pope's death was announced by church bells Saturday in Cuba, Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque expressed "the people's and the government's deep sadness."

Cuba "will always remember his words against the U.S. economic embargo that our people suffer," Roque said. (Full story)

Castro, who attended a Jesuit school during his childhood, did not make Christmas a permanent public holiday until Pope John Paul's 1998 visit to the island.

But after signing the book, the 78-year-old Communist leader attended a special funeral Mass at Havana's cathedral led by Cuba's Catholic leader, Cardinal Jaime Ortega.

Since Sunday afternoon, hundreds of Cubans -- from the wives of political prisoners to high-level government officials -- have come to the embassy to sign the condolence book.

Most of them are ordinary citizens, such as Mercedes Reguera, a devout Catholic who remembers the time when people like her were considered enemies of the revolution.

"I didn't dare go to church, and I'm sorry for it," Reguera said. "Now I do, and I'm here because I adored this pope and wanted to show my feelings."

The Cuban government has declared three days of national mourning and canceled all festivities, including the Communist Youth anniversary party and the grand finale of Cuba's national baseball championship.

"This shows that the friendship and sympathy the pope expressed for Cuba has left its mark," said Monsignor Luigi Bonazzi, the papal nuncio in Havana.

Cuba was officially an atheist country until 1992. While Cuba now permits greater opportunities for religious expression than in past years, there are still restrictions.

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