REPORTING FROM VATICAN CITY-–Pope Benedict XVI would be “available” to meet with Fidel Castro should the ailing Cuban leader request an encounter when the pope visits his country later this month, the Vatican spokesman said Friday.
Father Federico Lombardi told reporters at the Vatican that no meeting between Benedict and Fidel Castro had been scheduled but that “it is something that is possible” during the March 23-28 trip that will take the pope to Mexico and Cuba.
A private meeting between the pope and the former leader’s younger brother, President Raul Castro, is scheduled for March 27, when Benedict will be in Havana, Lombardi said.
If the older Castro “desires to meet the Holy Father, he will be available,” Lombardi said during a news conference detailing the papal voyage, Benedict’s 23rd international trip and first to the Spanish-speaking Americas.
Asked if the pope, who will be 85 next month, was in good health, Lombardi said, “If he is making this trip, it’s a sign that he’s fine.”
The pope will travel first to the city of Leon in Mexico’s central Guanajuato state, where during a three-day stay he will make a speech to 4,000 children, pray with cardinals and bishops from all Latin America and meet with Mexican President Felipe Calderon.
He will then travel to Santiago, Cuba, where he will celebrate Mass at the sanctuary of Our Lady of Charity before moving on to Havana.
Besides the meeting with Raul Castro and a dinner with Cuban bishops, the pope will celebrate an open-air Mass in the Plaza of the Revolution, which the Vatican expects 600,000 people to attend.
Lombardi said no meetings with dissidents or groups opposed to the Castro regime were planned.
On Thursday night, a group of 13 dissidents occupying a central Havana church was ousted by police. Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega made the controversial decision to call the police, after securing a promise the dissidents would not be arrested. The group had been demanding that the pope address human rights abuses by the government.
Asked about the incident Friday, Lombardi said the Vatican had been briefed by the local church.
“I understand that within the area of opposition there were various opinions about whether the occupation was a good initiative or not,” he said.
On a historical visit to Cuba in 1998, Pope John Paul II met with Fidel Castro and also publicly called for human rights reform and the release of political prisoners.
Lombardi said he did not know whether Benedict also planned to address human rights and freedom of religion while in Cuba, which according to the Vatican is about 60% Catholic, but whose people also practice Santeria and numerous other faiths.
-- Sarah Delaney
Photo: In this photo from Jan. 25, 1998, then-President Fidel Castro of Cuba talks to Pope John Paul II after a Mass celebrated at the Plaza of the Revolution in Havana. Credit: Pool photo by Arturo Mari via Associated Press.