Pope Benedict XVI would like to meet with Fidel Castro as part of an upcoming trip to Cuba, say unnamed Vatican officials, assuming Castro's health allows it.
The Pope is officially set to meet Fidel Castro's younger brother, Raul, as part of the pontiff's trip to Cuba in March. The two leaders are scheduled to have a private meeting in Havana on March 27, though Fidel is currently not expected to make an appearance.
Fidel Castro ruled Cuba for 49 years before his younger brother succeeded him four years ago. Fidel's health has limited his public appearances for many years, though he still occasionally makes meetings with foreign officials or writes articles discussing international affairs.
Although the Pope's visit is officially meant to recognize the 400th anniversary of the discovery of a statue of the Virgin of Charity, many political dissidents have encouraged Benedict to use his visit to shine light on the Castro regime's human rights violations. According to Oscar Elias Biscet, "I would love for him [the Pope] to lobby for our freedom of speech and for a multi-party system, so that everyone can participate and be represented. We hope that his coming will bring great change to our country."
Biscet, one of 125 political prisoners released by Raul Castro last month, was awarded the Medal of Freedom in 2007 by President Bush and has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
Several U.S. politicians have spoken out on Biscet's behalf, requesting that Benedict meet with dissidents as well as Cuban government officials. According to Representative David Rivers (R-Fla.), "It is up to the pope himself to respond to Dr. Biscet. I would hope they would be responsive to Dr. Biscet's hope and aspirations and his request of the pope and the Catholic Church."
The U.S. Department of State recognized Cuba as an atheist state from 1959 to 1992, when laws were passed mandating separation of church and state. Today, Catholicism is Cuba's largest organized religion. The Cuban church is led by Cardinal Jaime Ortega, who has also spoken out against the Castro regime, most recently to release political prisoners in 2010.