Pope Benedict XVI has arrived in Cuba, saying he holds great affection for Cubans on both sides of the Florida Straits and has heartfelt hopes for reconciliation.
President Raul Castro warmly greeted the pope on Monday, who said he was coming as "a pilgrim of charity" as he arrived at the sweltering airport in Santiago, Cuba's second largest city.
The pontiff, who last week said that Cuban Marxism "no longer responds to reality," gave a more gentle tweak to his hosts by expressing sympathy for all islanders, including prisoners.
"I carry in my heart the just aspirations and legitimate desires of all Cubans, wherever they may be," he said.
"Those of the young and the elderly, of adolescents and children, of the sick and workers, of prisoners and their families, and of the poor and those in need."
In his own remarks, the Cuban leader assured Benedict his country favors complete religious liberty and has good relations with all religious institutions.
He also criticised the 50-year US economic embargo and defended the socialist ideal of providing for those less fortunate.
"We have confronted scarcity but have never failed in our duty to share with those who have less," Castro said, adding that his country remains determined to chart its own path and resist efforts by "the most forceful power that history has ever known" - a reference to the United States - to thwart the island's socialist model.
Both the Catholic church and the Cuban government have something to gain from their slowly growing relationship, said Al Jazeera's Adam Raney, reporting from Santiago de Cuba on the islands eastern coast.
"The church is looking probably to increase its presence in the country... There aren't really other civil society actors that speak for people except for the state or the church.
"The government is likely going to get further support from the church in providing social services... so the church is going to help them do that," our correspondent said.
More than half of all Cubans are Roman Catholic, although many believe in a mix of African spiritual beliefs and Catholicism.
The pope's visit to Cuba coincides with celebrations to honour the country's patron saint, Our Lady of Charity.
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|Liaquat Ali Khan|