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Pope Helped Broker U.S.-Cuba Prison Release, Policy Changes

Pope Francis, whose statements on gay rights, disdain for the ornate trappings of the papacy and selfies and tweets have won him great popularity and trust, helped bring about and broker the negotiations leading to historic changes is U.S.-Cuba relations, the White House announced Wednesday.

President Barack Obama thanked the pontiff for his role in a noon speech in which the president explained the release of American contractor Alan Gross and the exchange of prisoners and announced plans for an easing of U.S. policies against Cuba.

"In particular, I want to thank His Holiness Pope Francis, whose moral example shows us the importance of pursuing the world as it should be, rather than simply settling for the world as it is," Obama said Tuesday.

In a White House call with reporters before the president spoke, senior administration officials said meetings to negotiate the US-Cuba agreements were held in Canada and the Vatican. None were held in the U.S. or Cuba. When Obama met last March with Francis, whom the official said Obama greatly respects, the topic of Cuba was greatly discussed, according to Obama.

The Vatican issued a release after Obama's speech congratulating the U.S. and Cuba and explaining that the pope had written letters to the president and Cuban President Raúl Castro on resolving humanitarian issues, including the imprisoned Alan Gross. The White House gave a similar account in a call to reporters.

"An important meeting, where I guess you could say this all was finalized, was hosted by the Vatican," said the administration official who spoke on a conference call with reporters on condition of anonymity. The meeting occurred this past fall.

"The support of Pope Francis and the support of the Vatican was important to us, given the esteem with which both the Cuban and the American people hold the Catholic Church and in particular, Pope Francis, who as you know has a substantial history in Latin America, the first pope to be chosen from Latin America," the official said.

The official said in particular the exchange and transfer of prisoners was finalized in the meeting at the Vatican, but also the steps toward normalizing relations and establishing diplomatic relations were reviewed there. "The Vatican welcomed that news," he said.