Pope Francis meets with Fidel Castro in Havana, after an outdoor mass attended by tens of thousands of people in the capital's Revolution Square
By Nick Squires, Havana
8:06PM BST 20 Sep 2015
Cuban authorities prevented leading dissidents from meeting Pope Francis in Havana on Sunday, in a sign of the Communist regime’s rigid intolerance of political opposition.
Two well-known dissidents, Marta Beatriz Roque and Miriam Leiva, had been invited by the Vatican to attend a vespers service led by the Pope’s in Havana’s historic baroque cathedral.
But they said they were detained by security agents and barred from attending the event.
"They told me that I didn't have a credential and that I couldn't go to the Pope’s event that was taking place there in the plaza of the Cathedral," Ms Roque said.
She said that she and Ms Leiva had also been invited by the Vatican to meet Pope Francis at the residence of the Holy See’s ambassador to Cubashortly after the pontiff's arrival on Saturday, but that they were detained on that occasion as well.
The head of an opposition group called the Ladies in White said that 22 of the 24 members of the group who had hoped to attend a Mass celebrated by the Pope were prevented from doing so by Cuban security officials.
There had been intense speculation about whether the Pope would risk incurring the displeasure of his host, President Raul Castro, by meeting political opponents of the Communist regime.
The fact that the Vatican invited the women to Sunday’s cathedral service showed Francis’ determination to try to engage with the dissident movement, which has endured years of persecution by the Castro regime.
Earlier in the day, the Pope celebrated Mass in Havana’s Revolution Square in front of tens of thousands of people.
He was driven through the crowds in a white pope-mobile, pausing to kiss children who were held up to him.
As the ceremony got underway, Cuban security officers detained at least three people who appeared to be trying to distribute leaflets in the capital’s Revolution Square, a large open area dominated by a massive likeness of revolutionary hero Che Guevara.
The three people were tackled and dragged away by the officers.
Political opponents of President Raul Castro’s Communist regime are regularly subjected to harassment and intimidation.
In its latest report on Cuba, Human Rights Watch said that the Castro government “continues to repress dissent and discourage public criticism.”
The human rights group said “repressive tactics employed by the government include beatings, public acts of shaming, and the termination of employment.”
There are high hopes among many Cubans that the Pope’s visit will spur the Castro regime towards enacting more reforms and granting greater freedoms to its long-suffering people, who survive on an average monthly wage of $25.
But the message delivered by the Pope in two addresses to the large crowd was more pastoral than political and he refrained from issuing even coded criticism of the Communist government.
After the morning Mass, Pope Francis met Fidel Castro at the ex-president's residence in Havana, in an encounter that had been widely expected.
The pair held a "friendly and informal conversation" for around 40 minutes, said the Rev Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman.
A photo provided by Alex Castro, Fidel's son and official photographer, showed the 89-year-old former president and Francis looking into each other's eyes as they shook hands, the pope in his white vestments and Castro in a white shirt and Adidas sweat top.
They also exchanged gifts. Fidel Castro gave the Pope a book titled "Fidel and Religion", based on conversations between the Cuban leader and a Brazilian priest, in which he discussed his views on Catholicism and his education in a Jesuit school.
The Pope gave Fidel a book written by a Jesuit who taught the former guerrilla leader at the Catholic school he attended as a child.
The Pope will fly from Havana to the eastern city of Holguin on Monday, where he will celebrate Mass, and from there will travel to the city of Santiago.
On Tuesday he will fly from Cuba to Washington, where he will meet President Obama and address Congress, on his first visit to the United States.