Page last updated at 00:34 GMT, Sunday, 30 November 2008

Cuban landmark for Catholic friar


The ceremony to mark the beatification in Camaguey

The first beatification ceremony in Cuba has been held in front of thousands of Catholics and President Raul Castro.

It was the final step before sainthood for 19th Century friar, Jose Olallo, known as the "poor people's priest".

The ceremony in Camaguey was broadcast on state television.

The unannounced arrival of Mr Castro was greeted with applause, a sign of the growing rapprochement between the communist state and the Church.

The top Vatican official who anoints saints, Cardinal Jose Saraiva from Portugal, presided over a mass lasting almost three hours at the Church of the Virgin of Charity.

Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega, papal nuncio Luigi Bonazzi, Camaguey Archbishop Juan Garcia, and about 20 Cuban and foreign bishops were also present.

Doves were released and bells rung as Friar Olallo's remains, in a gold-coloured urn, were taken in a procession through the city.

Friar Olallo, a member of the Hospitallier Order of Saint John of God, helped the sick and wounded during Cuba's first war of independence (1868-1878) against Spain.

He defied Spanish orders barring members of religious orders from Cuba, and was the sole Hospitallier on the island at the time.

Improving relations

Friar Olallo's remains were taken in a procession through Camaguey
Raul Castro's presence at the ceremony was greeted by applause
While the ceremony was the first to be held in Cuba, Friar Olallo was not the first Cuban to be beatified.

Cuban-born Fray Jose Lopez Piteira was beatified in 2007, but the ceremony took place in Spain where he died during the Spanish civil war.

In the early years of the revolution, Cuba was an atheist state. Many priests were expelled or sent to labour camps.

But relations have improved significantly since former leader Fidel Castro welcomed Pope John Paul II to Havana a decade ago.

When his brother Raul took over the presidency earlier this year, his first foreign visitor was the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Bertone.

And this is second time in a week Mr Castro has been to a church.

On Thursday he accompanied the Russian President Dmitri Medvedev to the recently opened Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Havana.

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