This post has been corrected. See the note below for details.
REPORTING FROM HAVANA -- Tens of thousands of people crowded Revolution Plaza where Pope Benedict XVI came to speak Wednesday. Some worshipers had traveled by bus all night from around the island nation, arriving at dawn for the 9 a.m. Mass.
Many praised the pope’s call an expanded role for the Roman Catholic Church, though they noted that Cuba had taken baby steps toward more religious freedom in recent years as relations with the church have warmed.
“The church should be given more freedom -- freedom not to paint things in way they’re not, but to paint things as they are,” said a 17-year-old student named Jose Miguel, who declined to give his last name. “The church could help the state a lot.”
The teen said Cubans needed the right to think and express themselves, including considering alternatives to the island’s communist rulers. “There’s desire, but a lot of fear,” he said.
Ana Isabel Hernandez, 46, a church worker who traveled 10 hours by bus from the city of Villa Clara, in central Cuba, applauded Benedict’s call for more religious liberty. When asked whether the pope’s message could have carried a harder edge, Hernandez smiled slyly.
“It was good,” she said. “You can’t be that direct.”
Eloilda Garcia, a Catholic lay missionary who rode seven hours in a bus caravan, said she hoped the government would accede to Benedict’s request to make Good Friday a nationally recognized holiday. Garcia, in a white cap with the pope’s image and a T shirt saying “Welcome,” said Cuba has opened some since the last time a pope visited, in 1998.
“We’re opening little by little. People are talking more openly about Christ, when we didn’t before. Little by little you feel a change,” Garcia said. “It’s a hope.”
The plaza was crowned by a giant altar built for the occasion. It was surrounded by fluttering Cuban flags and government office buildings bearing larger-than-life portraits of revolutionary heroes such as Che Guevara.
The only outwardly religious adornment was a billboard-sized banner with an image of Our Lady of Charity, patron saint of Cuba, hanging on the side of the National Library.
The plaza was already baking under a blazing sun by the time services began at 9 a.m. Some people took shelter under umbrellas. A number who succumbed to the heat were carried off on Red Cross stretchers.
Although many of those in the crowd were Catholics, the Mass also drew many non-believers eager to catch a glimpse of the pope, or just to experience a big event.
“Look around. Most people here aren’t believers,” said Maria Gomez, a 48-year-old school teacher and non-believer. “People came for, I don’t know, curiosity. To join the excitement.”
[For the Record, 9:13 a.m., March 29: A previous version of this post incorrectly referred to a likeness of Fidel Castro hanging at Revolution Plaza. Castro's image is not displayed at the plaza.]
-- Ken Ellingwood
Photo: Thousands turned out for a Mass conducted by Pope Benedict XVI in Revolution Plaza in Havana on Wednesday morning. Credit: Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times