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Castro Attends Papal Funeral Mass

By Michael Ireland
Chief Correspondent, ASSIST News Service HAVANA, CUBA (ANS) -- President Fidel Castro has made a rare visit to the Catholic cathedral in Cuba's capital Havana to attend a funeral Mass for Pope John Paul II. He praised the Pontiff as a "tireless fighter for friendship among peoples" and a friend of the poor, according to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). Castro said the Pope would be remembered by Cubans for speaking out against the US trade embargo of the island.

The BBC said Cuba, which was officially atheist until 1992, has begun three days of national mourning.

Castro wore a dark suit instead of his usual military uniform. He was accompanied by members of Cuba's ruling Communist Party.

Church officials said it was one of his first visits to the cathedral in decades. Thousands of mourners filled the cathedral and the adjoining square to follow the service led by Cuba's most senior prelate, Cardinal Jaime Ortega.

Correspondents say Cuba's communist-led government surprised some by encouraging the population to reflect on the life of John Paul II.

"Rest in peace, tireless fighter for friendship among peoples, enemy of war and friend of the poor," Castro wrote in the condolences book at the Vatican's mission in Havana.

"Your departure pains us, unforgettable friend, and we fervently wish your example is lasting," he wrote.

The BBC reported that Castro said John Paul would be remembered for taking a stand against the US blockade of Cuba during a visit in 1998.

"This earned you the gratitude and the affection of all Cubans forever," he said.

Cuba's National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon will head his country's delegation to the Papal funeral at the Vatican on Friday.

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Michael Ireland is an international British freelance journalist. A former reporter with a London newspaper, Michael is the Chief Correspondent for ASSIST News Service of Garden Grove, CA. Michael immigrated to the United States in 1982 and became a US citizen in Sept., 1995. He is married with two children. Michael has also been a frequent contributor to UCB Europe, a British Christian radio station.

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