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Jan 02, 2012, 09.46 AM IST | Source: Reuters

Pope Benedict XVI to visit Cuba March 26-28

CUBA-POPE:Pope Benedict XVI to visit Cuba March 26-28

HAVANA (Reuters) - Pope Benedict XVI will visit Cuba on March 26-28 and perform two open-air masses on the communist island as part of his upcoming trip to Mexico and Cuba, Roman Catholic Church officials said on Sunday.

The 84-year-old pontiff was to fly from Mexico and arrive in the eastern city of Santiago, where he will be met by President Raul Castro, and then go on to Havana on March 27.

He will perform masses in the main plazas -- both known as Revolution Square -- of the two cities and also visit Cuba's most famous religious icon, the statue of the Virgin of Charity in the town of El Cobre, the Church said.

The purpose of the papal visit is in part to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the relic, said to have been found by three fishermen floating in a bay in eastern Cuba.

A replica of the statue on Friday completed a 16-month pilgrimage around the island that was the first such religious display since the 1950s and a signal of improved relations between the government and the Church, which were at odds for many years following the 1959 revolution.

Relations began to warm in the 1990s, a process that was aided by a 1998 visit by Pope John Paul II, and intensified in 2010 when the church brokered a deal with Castro to release political prisoners.

It was not known if Benedict would meet with Fidel Castro, 85, who ruled Cuba for 49 years before his brother Raul Castro, 80, succeeded him in 2008.

The elder Castro now seldom appears in public, but occasionally meets in private with visiting foreign leaders and writes columns about international affairs.

The pope will go to Mexico for three days starting on May 23 before going to Cuba, Mexico church officials said on Sunday.

(Reporting by Jeff Franks; Editing by Philip Barbara)

(jeff.franks@thomsonreuters.com; + 537 833 3145))

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