Pope Francis Celebrates Mass in Havana's Revolution Square

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By Reuters

Pope Francis celebrated Mass with tens of thousands of Cubans on Sunday in Havana's Revolution Square, the political heart of Cuba where the Communist government stages its biggest rallies.

The huge plaza is where Cubans celebrate May Day beneath massive portraits of revolutionary leaders Ernesto "Che" Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos built into the facades of state buildings. To welcome the pope, a similarly giant poster of Jesus Christ was hung nearby.

"Francis has come to bless this new union between Cuba and the United States," said tourism worker Enrique Mesa, 32, on his way to the Mass, in a reference to the recent Cuba-U.S. rapprochement that Francis helped bring about.

While Cuba's government basks in the glow of the pope's four-day visit, he may use the stage to criticize the Communist leaders on democracy and human rights. He is expected to visit retired leader Fidel Castro, 89, later on Sunday.

Arriving on Saturday, Francis exhorted Cuba and the United States to deepen their detente, and encouraged Cuba to grant more freedom to the Roman Catholic Church, which has re-emerged as a powerful force after suffering decades of repression.

"His visit is cause for hope in our aspirations for improvement," said biologist Benito Espinoza, 41, at Revolution Square, where some arrived as early as 3 a.m. "We are an optimistic people, but we have suffered for many years."

The first Latin American pope, Francis will speak to Cubans in their common mother tongue of Spanish.