VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis rightly got credit for helping bring the U.S. and Cuba together and free U.S. government subcontractor Alan Gross. But it was Francis' predecessor, Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, who made the first high-level Vatican manoeuver to release Gross, spurred in part by an unlikely group of papal lobbyists.
The American Jewish Committee was one of several Jewish groups that approached the Vatican in the months before Benedict's March 2012 visit to Cuba to ask that the German pontiff raise the issue of the Jewish captive on humanitarian grounds with Cuba's leadership, The Associated Press has learned.
"I was told to rest assured that it would be and that it was raised," the AJC's Rabbi David Rosen told the AP on Thursday.
An official familiar with the Holy See's diplomacy confirmed that Benedict did indeed discuss the Gross case with President Raul Castro, and possibly with Fidel Castro, during the March 27-28 meetings in Havana. The encounters came exactly two years before Francis and President Barack Obama discussed the Gross detention at the Vatican.
A few months later, Francis wrote letters to both Obama and Raul Castro, asking them to resolve the "humanitarian questions of common concern, including the situation of some prisoners," and offering up the Vatican as a facilitator to seal the deal to restore relations, the Vatican said Wednesday.
The negotiations were concluded at the Vatican in October in the presence of Francis' top diplomat, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, who until 2013 was the Vatican's ambassador to Cuba's top ally, Venezuela.
Gross was released Wednesday and returned home to the U.S. in a prisoner swap for three Cubans held as spies, part of the historic decision to restore diplomatic ties.
Gross says he was only working to set up Internet access for Cuba's tiny Jewish community when he was arrested in 2009. But a Cuban court sentenced him to 15 years under a statute covering crimes against the state. Cuba considers programs like the U.S. Agency for International Development project that Gross was contracted for to be attempts at undermining its sovereignty.
Rosen said as soon as Benedict's Cuba trip was announced, the Jewish community mobilized to lobby the Vatican on Gross' behalf, compelled by the sacred Jewish principle of doing everything possible to free captives, as well as a historical preoccupation with the detention and persecution of Jews for their faith.
Rosen said he spoke to and emailed officials in the Vatican secretariat of state and the Vatican's ambassador to Israel to ask that the Vatican raise the issue on humanitarian grounds during Benedict's trip.
"Nobody was asked to take up any principled argument as to whether what he had been accused of was justified or unjustified, whether he had been framed, but to raise it on compassionate grounds," said Rosen, who as head of the AJC's interreligious affairs department is one of the Holy See's key partners in Jewish dialogue.
During Benedict's Cuba trip, the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, was asked if the Gross affair had been raised. Lombardi said at the time that "requests of a humanitarian character" were discussed, but that he had no information about individual cases.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the Holy See's diplomacy publicly, said Benedict did indeed raise the case, saying the Vatican considered it a humanitarian intervention given Gross' deteriorating health.
While in Cuban custody, Gross lost more than 100 pounds, developed problems with his hips and lost most of the vision in his right eye.
Travelling with Benedict on that trip was Archbishop Angelo Becciu, the No. 2 official in the secretariat of state and former Vatican ambassador to Cuba, who is believed to have had a prominent role in the final resolution of the initiative.
"It's great that Francis gets credit for it, but many things were result of initiatives started by his predecessor," Rosen said.
While Benedict may have gotten the ball rolling, Francis sealed the deal using in part his familiarity with the issue as history's first Latin American pope.
"The pope has said it many times and I like to repeat it: When there are problems, you need to have dialogue. And the greater the problems, the greater the need to have dialogue," Cardinal Parolin told Vatican Radio on Thursday.
For his part, Francis on Thursday praised the "little steps" of diplomacy that can bring about peace.
"And today we're all happy because we saw how two peoples, who had been apart for so many years, took a step closer yesterday," Francis told a group of new ambassadors in his first public comments about the deal.
Follow Nicole Winfield at www.twitter.com/nwinfield