Cuban authorities granted Havana's Roman Catholic cardinal a rare chance to address the nation Tuesday night on state-controlled television about the imminent arrival of Pope Benedict XVI.
Cardinal Jaime Ortega said Benedict was coming to Cuba as a pilgrim to honor the 400th anniversary of the appearance of the Virgin of Charity of Cobre, the patron of Cuba. Church officials have taken the iconic representation of the Virgin across the island recently to large crowds of worshippers.
"There was great interest in this pilgrimage because the pope is determined to revive the faith in countries that were Christianized before but need a new evangelization, and he saw in this mission a true example of what it is to revive the faith of a people," said Ortega.
Ortega's message was broadcast Tuesday night on Cubavision. Another church address is planned for next week by the archbishop of the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba, the first stop in Benedict's March 26-28 visit.
Catholic leaders have long sought more access to the airwaves on this Communist-run island, including asking for its own radio station, and a church spokesman said he hoped the broadcasts were a sign of things to come.
"We hope this continues at the necessary moments even after the visit of the pope," spokesman Orlando Marquez told The Associated Press in a written statement.
"There is something unique in a message that comes directly from the church, from the pastors. That is what the faithful want, and the people too," he said.
Cuba's government exerts tight control over all TV and radio broadcasting and considers the airwaves a matter of national strategic concern.
The church was essentially shut out for decades following the 1959 revolution led by Fidel Castro. His government, officially atheist under the constitution, closed church schools and harassed priests, and believers of all faiths were barred from Communist Party membership.
Relations began thawing in the 1990s, and the church has periodically been granted TV time since Pope John Paul II's historic visit in 1998.
Today, Masses and Christmas celebrations are sometimes televised, as were recent processions marking the 400th anniversary of the appearance of the Virgin of Charity of Cobre, the patron saint of Cuba.
But Catholic officials have repeatedly asked for more airtime broadcast on a more consistent basis to get their message out.
Marquez called the speeches by Ortega and Dionisio Garcia Ibanez, the archbishop of Santiago, a "magnificent opportunity" for the church.
On Monday, the Communist Party newspaper Granma dedicated a lengthy editorial to the papal visit.
"We are sure that His Holiness will affectionately treasure the memory of this Caribbean Island, which values his visit as a manifestation of trust and a renewed expression of the excellent and uninterrupted relations between the Holy See and Cuba," it said.
Associated Press writer Andrea Rodriguez contributed to this report.
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