By Jeff Franks
HAVANA (Reuters) - Roman Catholic Church leaders called for reconciliation among Cubans and urged further economic reform at an outdoor mass in Cuba on Friday marking the end of a national pilgrimage of a statue of the island's patron saint.
About 3,000 people gathered along Havana Bay for the ceremony led by Havana Cardinal Jaime Ortega paying tribute to the Virgin of Charity of Cobre, a Catholic icon that has toured the communist-ruled country for the past 16 months in the first such religious display permitted since the 1950s.
Pope Benedict XVI is scheduled to visit Cuba in the spring to mark the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the statue, said to have been found floating in a bay by three fishermen in eastern Cuba.
Ortega said millions of Cubans had prayed before the small, ornate statue, which was taken around the country in a specially outfitted Toyota pickup truck that looked a little like the Popemobile used when the pope tours.
"Our people appreciate peace as a superior good and have prayed much asking the Virgin of Charity that it include reconciliation," he told the crowd.
"Mother, come again over the sometimes agitated waves of our history, and with your mantle, that the waters can never dampen, cover all the Cubans, also those that live outside of Cuba," he said.
The point was reinforced by the presence of Thomas Wenski, archbishop of Miami, the center of the nearly 2 million-strong Cuban exile community that fled the island after the 1959 revolution that put Fidel Castro in power and has led U.S. opposition to the Cuban government.
Wenski sat on the makeshift altar with Ortega and all the bishops of the Cuban Church.
"I've been able to come here today as a way of expressing the fact that the Cuban people wherever they are, are still one people," Wenski told reporters. "I think today the Virgin of Charity has brought together the Cuban people."
CHURCH-STATE RELATIONS IMPROVING
The pilgrimage and papal visit are signs of improving relations between the government and Church after years of tension that followed the revolution, which transformed historically Catholic Cuba into a communist state that was openly atheist until the 1990s.
Vice President Esteban Lazo and Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez attended the Mass, in a show of support for the Church that would have been unthinkable for many years. In 1998, Pope John Paul II made a visit to the island that helped improve relations.
The Church, Cuba's most influential institution outside of the government, has taken a bigger role since Raul Castro succeeded his older brother as president almost four years ago and began a dialogue with Ortega in 2010 that led to the release of more than a 100 political prisoners.
Last week, Cuba released 2,900 prisoners, including seven dissidents, at the request of the Church and in recognition of the upcoming papal visit.
Raul Castro has sought better relations with the Church as part of his campaign to end the country's economic woes.
He is trying to trim the role of the state, which controls most of the economy, and encourage more private initiative to try to assure that the communist system survives when the aging leadership is gone.
The Church has been a vocal advocate of economic change, which Ortega repeated on Friday, saying the government should "continue advancing without obstacles those necessary transformations in the social and economic life that the Cuban people hope for."
(Editing by Peter Cooney)