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Friday, January 23, 1998 Published at 09:07 GMT

World: Americas

Pope tells Castro to release political prisoners
image: [ The Vatican says the Cuban authorities have promised to consider the Pope's plea ]
The Vatican says the Cuban authorities have promised to consider the Pope's plea

The Pope has called on President Fidel Castro to pardon political prisoners in Cuban jails.

Pope John Paul, who is on a five day visit to Cuba, met the President on Thursday evening.

Prior to his visit, the Pope received letters from several jailed dissidents asking him to intervene on their behalf.

[ image: The leaders exchange gifts]
The leaders exchange gifts
The Vatican spokesman, Joaquin Navarro, said the Cuban authorities received the petition with great interest and promised to consider it.

"The Cuban authorities, taking into account the high moral authority that issued the call and the humanitarian character of the request, have received it with all due attention," he said.

There are said to be up to 600 political prisoners in Cuba. But the Cuban authorities see little difference between those who speak out against the system and common criminals.

The Pontiff's five-day tour has raised speculation that he could be a harbinger of change in Cuba, one of the world's few remaining communist nations.

During the meeting President Castro gave the Pope an antique biography of Varela, a noted Cuban academic. In return the Pope offered the President a framed mosaic of Christ - an important reflection of the ideological differences between the two men.

After Thursday's mass that honoured the family, Friday's mass in Camaguey, 430 miles (700 kilometers) east of Havana, is to be dedicated to young people.

Both themes are particularly significant in a country where prostitution is rampant, abortions are common and divorces frequent.

Later on Friday, the Pope will return to the capital where he will address several hundred invited guests.

This is the second time that the two leaders have met. Fidel Castro visited the Vatican in 1996.


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