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Christmas to be observed in Cuba

December 15, 1997
Web posted at: 4:36 a.m. EST (0936 GMT)

HAVANA (CNN) -- Cuban President Fidel Castro has declared Christmas a national holiday this year -- an unprecedented gesture of goodwill in honor of Pope John Paul II's upcoming visit to the communist nation.

"The pope is our guest. ... We will do everything to the hilt to ensure that the visit will be historic," Castro said during a three-hour speech broadcast Sunday on national television.

The Cuban president said he would present the proposal to those in charge of organizing next month's papal visit. The proposal is sure to be accepted because the organizing committee is made up of Castro appointees.

In Sunday's speech, Castro pledged to make every effort to ensure that the pope's visit -- the first papal visit in Cuban history -- is a successful one. Cuba is the only Spanish-speaking country in Latin America the pope has not already visited since ascending to the papacy in 1978.

"I made this a gesture for the pope and for all Christians," Castro said. The pope is scheduled to visit Cuba January 21-25, a visit that Castro called an "honor for Cuba, and a valiant gesture."

In Rome, the Vatican appeared pleased by the news.

"I express satisfaction and gratitude for a decision that was highly desired by the people and the Catholic church in Cuba," Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls told Reuters.

"We are grateful for this and hopeful for the future. We'll see.," he added.

Castro: Pope has free reign in Cuba

Castro angrily rejected claims from critics that the government would harass people attending four planned papal masses, pointing out that he personally had invited the pope, and was allowing a church-arranged cruise ship from Miami to come to Cuba.

Castro promised to honor several church requests, including free access to the Cuban media, virtually all of which is state-owned. "The pope should feel free to address anything he wants to in Cuba," Castro said. He also promised to provide transportation to the papal masses.

However, the Cuban president stressed that December 25 would be an official holiday for this year only.

Christmas was dropped as a holiday in 1969, when the Cuban government was pushing for a record sugar harvest. The decision "didn't have anything to do with our traditions, just our climate," Castro said Sunday.

Catholicism catching on in Cuba

Family parties, decorations, and religious services have become more common at Christmas since the Cuban government lifted restrictions on religion in 1991. Prior to that, since 1962, Cuba was officially atheist, and Christmas observances aroused suspicions from party officials.

Relations between Cuba and the church have been strained over the years, warming only recently. During Castro's visit to the Vatican in November 1996, the pope asked that Christmas be restored on the island. Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega renewed the request at a December 9 press conference. The government had not responded until Sunday.

The island-nation's Catholics welcomed the news of the one-time Christmas holiday.

"It's a real act of goodwill on the part of the government," said Luis Gonzalez, who works at offices of the Cuban Bishops' Conference. "The government will be recognizing the wishes of a large sector (of society)."


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