Pope Gifts Rare Crocodile Back to Cuba Ahead of Visit

As Pope Benedict XVI prepares for a visit to Cuba and Mexico, it has been reported that he is making an unusual yet special gift to the Caribbean country – a small crocodile that was stolen from the island by an Italian but was later taken in by a zoo in Rome.

Pope Benedict will visit the country on March 27, where he will celebrate the 400th anniversary of the discovery of a statue of the Virgin of Charity, and will be welcomed by Cuba's leader, President Raul Castro, and possibly his older and brother and previous president, Fidel.

More than a dozen dissidents in Cuba occupied a church in Havana last week in an effort to attract Pope Benedict XVI's attention in the hope of exposing human rights crimes allegedly taking place in the communist country, but they were later removed.

The pope flies out on March 26, and the crocodile will follow him a day later, the Daily Herald reported.

The small Cuban crocodile, the highly endangered crocodylus rhombifer species, was dubbed Il Coccodrillo del Papa ("The Pope's Crocodile") and was marked as a special gift by the Benedict, who is known for his love of nature and environmental efforts, to be presented back to Cuba.

The little crocodile was found last year at a private home in northern Italy and was placed in the care of Rome's Bioparco zoo. It was apparently stolen from Cuba from an Italian tourist who transported it back to Italy in a sock. It will now be returned to Cuba's swampy southern Zapata Peninsula, its natural habitat.

At an event last week at the Zoo attended by some top Vatican officials and Cuba's ambassador to the Holy See, Eduardo Delgado, which served to bid farewell to the reptile, Vatican Substitute for General Affairs Archbishop Giovanni Angelo Becciu said that the initiative symbolizes "respect for nature and friendship between nations."

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