Pope Francis meets with Fidel Castro during first Cuba trip

A photograph by Fidel’s son Alex Castro showed the 89-year-old former president shaking hands with Pope Francis, with the two looking into each other’s eyes as the ailing Castro appeared to hold onto another unidentified man for support.

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Current President and atheist Raul Castro welcomed the pope and has expressed hope Francis will speak out against Washington’s economic embargo against Cuba before leaving for the USA capital.

Francis, 78, gave Castro several of his official papal writings, two books on spirituality and a book and CD on the writings of Father Armando Llorente, a priest who taught Castro in Jesuit prep school more than 70 years ago.

HOLGUÍN, Cuba-Pope Francis on Monday praised the “efforts and sacrifices” made by Cuba’s Catholic Church to work on the island amid a delicate period of transition, scarce resources and a history of tensions with the communist regime. To judge by polls, most of America’s 51 million or so Catholics, a third of whom are Hispanic, are delighted by their leader and by his left-sounding pronouncements on economics and global warming.

In the presence of Castro’s wife, children and grandchildren, Fr Lombardi said, the meeting was “familial and informal”.

Pope Francis, he said, has talked about building bridges and reconciliation with Cuba.

It is the first papal visit to Cuba since Pope Benedict in 2012.

Pope Francis gives mass at Revolution Square in Havana, Cuba, September 20, 2015.

Pope Francis has urged thousands of Cubans who filled Havana’s evocative Revolution Plaza to care for one another, and not judge each other, as he opened his visit to the country yesterday amid great hopes that the key role he played in bringing about detente with the United States will result in changes on the island.

Three Cuban dissidents opposed to the communist regime were arrested as they approached the pope shouting “Freedom!” when he arrived for the mass.

In a teleconference at the beginning of his trip, in which he was asked by students in Havana and New York about the US embargo, Francis said he would “do everything possible to build bridges, to remove barriers, and to foster communication”. He says, “I urge political leaders to persevere on this path and to develop all its potentialities”.

However, only the US Congress can lift it and the Republican leadership has defied President Obama’s calls to do so.

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The head of the opposition group Ladies in White told the Associated Press that 22 of 24 members of her group who wanted to attend Sunday’s Mass in Havana’s main plaza were prevented from going by Cuban security agents. While most Cubans might call themselves Catholic, less than 10 percent go to church.

Pope Francis and Cuba's Fidel Castro shakes hands in Havana Cuba Sunday Sept. 20 2015. The Vatican described the 40-minute meeting at Castro's residence as informal and familial with an exchange of books