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Thursday, January 22, 1998 Published at 17:46 GMT


Pope gives first mass in Cuba
image: [ Pope John Paul called on schools to open up to Christian education ]
Pope John Paul called on schools to open up to Christian education

Pope John Paul II has given his first-ever mass in Cuba, his first public ceremony since arriving in country.

Tens of thousands of Cubans gathered in a football stadium in Santa Clara, 140 miles east of Havana, to hear the mass. It was also broadcast live nationally by Cuban state-controlled television.

[ image: Pope: Condemned the 'evil ' of abortion]
Pope: Condemned the 'evil ' of abortion
It was a moment of great symbolic significance for Cuba.

Until Wednesday the communist-ruled island was the one Spanish-speaking country in Latin America the Pope had never visited. Never before had a pope given a mass in the country.

In the service the Pope spoke of the spirit of "love, reconciliation and hope".

He told the crowd: "My words will remain forever in your memory. You will repeat them to you children".

Abortion and education

[ image: Hundreds of thousands gathered]
Hundreds of thousands gathered
In his homily, he spoke on the role of the family, referring specifically to Cuban families who had been torn apart by conflict and confrontation.

In another clear reference to Cuban society he warned against the evils of divorce and abortion.

"The family is the basic cell of a society and the guarantee of its stability ... too many young people engage in promiscuous behavior ... and easy recourse to abortion," he said.

[ image: The crowd prayed for separated families]
The crowd prayed for separated families
Cuba is the only Latin American country with legal abortion on demand. But the government has been trying to discourage the widespread use of abortion as a form of contraception, promoting it as a last resort for problem pregnancies.

The Pope also said the family should have a central role in the education of children. He urged the government to end its monopoly on education and allow Catholic schools again in Cuba.

In what can be seen as a criticism of communism, he said that no ideology could replace that of the Catholic faith. But he also said he wanted to greet and welcome the secular audience too.

[ image: Many people had never seen anything like it]
Many people had never seen anything like it
Many of the crowd had never been to a religious service before. Among the thousands gathered were members of Cuba's national boxing team.

"Whether you are religious or not, you are going to get something from this mass," said Juan Carlos de Delis, a 31-year-old heavyweight.

President Castro, a traditional opponent of Catholicism, encouraged Communist Party rank-and-file to go to the mass, even if were not believers.

He also warned people not to shout political slogans or to be provoked if they disagreed with the content of the service.

In the United States, President Bill Clinton said he hoped Pope John Paul's visit would prompt a shift in the policies of the communist government of President Fidel Castro.

"I hope that this trip will lead to some reassessment on the part of the Cuban government that will enable us to move closer together in many ways," he said.


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