HAVANA (AP) - Pope Benedict XVI demanded more freedom for the Catholic Church in communist-run Cuba and preached against "fanaticism" in an unusually political sermon before hundreds of thousands at Revolution Plaza, with President Raul Castro in the front row.
Later, the president's brother, revolutionary leader Fidel, grilled the pontiff on changes in church liturgy and his role as spiritual leader of the world's Catholics, a Vatican spokesman said.
Benedict's homily was a not-so-subtle jab at the island's leadership before a vast crowd of Cubans, both in the sprawling plaza and watching on television. But he also clearly urged an end to Cuba's isolation, a reference to the 50-year U.S. economic embargo and the inability of 11 American presidents and brothers Fidel and Raul Castro to forge peace.
"Cuba and the world need change, but this will occur only if each one is in a position to seek the truth and chooses the way of love, sowing reconciliation and fraternity," Benedict said. The remark built upon the famed call of his predecessor, John Paul II, who said in his groundbreaking 1998 visit that Cuba should "open itself up to the world, and may the world open itself up to Cuba."
With the country's leadership listening from front-row seats, Benedict referred to the biblical account of how youths persecuted by the Babylonian king "preferred to face death by fire rather than betray their conscience and their faith."
He said people find freedom when they seek the truth Christianity offers.
"On the other hand there are those who wrongly interpret this search for the truth, leading them to irrationality and fanaticism; they close themselves up in "their truth' and try to impose it on others," he said from the altar, backed by an image of Cuba's revolutionary hero Ernesto "Che" Guevara.
Benedict's comments were an unmistakable criticism of the Cuban reality even if the pope didn't mention the government by name, said the Rev. Joseph Fessio, a former student of Benedict's. As his U.S. publisher, Fessio knows well the pope's message and how he transmits it, particularly the watchwords of his pontificate: truth and freedom.