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Church bells announced pope's death in Cuba

From Havana Bureau Chief Lucia Newman

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Catholics in Cuba mourn the death of Pope John Paul II.
John Paul II

HAVANA (CNN) -- Church bells rang out on the Communist island of Cuba Saturday to announce the death of Pope Paul II, the only pontiff ever to visit the country. He went there in January 1998.

The government of President Fidel Castro announced a three-day period of official mourning, banning all public festivities, including baseball games.

Even though Catholicism is the main religion in Cuba, no large crowds gathered in church plazas to pray for the pope before or after his death.

Perhaps that is because unlike in the rest of the Western world, Cuba's state-controlled media barely publicized that he was dying.

Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega broadcast a statement that the pope was near death. It was aired unceremoniously after the Sports and Weather on Friday night's news.

There was no story on the pope in the Saturday edition of Granma, Cuba's main Communist Party newspaper.

Nevertheless, shortly after Pope John Paul II's death was confirmed, Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque expressed "the people's and the government's deep sadness," and sent the State's "condolences to all believers in Cuba and the world."

"We always considered and continue to consider the Pope a friend, who fought against poverty, neo-liberalism and for peace. We will also always remember his words against the U.S. economic embargo that our people suffer," Roque said.

As Cubans learned of his death, they expressed grief.

"He was almost a saint," a school teacher told CNN.

Even non-believers praised the pontiff.

"He worked so hard for peace. He will be greatly missed," according to a construction worker who described himself as an atheist.

Although little was said in the Cuban media before John Paul II's death, Roque said there will be full coverage of the pope's funeral, which a representative of the Cuban government will attend.

Cuba was officially an atheist country until 1992, and, according to Human Rights Watch, the pope's January 1998 visit ignited hope that the government would allow greater religious freedom.

While Cuba permits greater opportunities for religious expression than in past years, there are still restrictions.

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