Pope Attacks Communism at First Mass in Cuba By Philip Pullella SANTA CLARA, Cuba (Reuters) - Pope John Paul II lost no time Thursday in criticizing communist Cuba, saying no ideology could replace Christianity and launching a sharp attack on the vaunted state education system. The pontiff, who arrived Wednesday for a landmark five-day visit, flew 180 miles east of Havana Thursday to celebrate an outdoor Mass in the central city of Santa Clara. A crowd of about 50,000 gathered before an altar in the shape of a thatched hut, waving Cuban flags and cheering when the frail 77-year-old pontiff arrived in his popemobile. The pope's first homily of his five-day visit, in the town where revolutionary icon Ernesto "Che" Guevara's remains are buried, signaled he would have no qualms about criticizing Cuba's society or politics. In a clear attack on communist rule, the pontiff said, "No ideology can replace his (Christ's) infinite wisdom and power," adding: "There is a need to recover loopbvalues at the level of the family and of society." He added: "Do not be afraid; open your families and schools to the values of the gospel of Jesus Christ, which are never a threat to any social projects." In an address that centered on family values, he lamented what he called "an acceptance of abortion, which is always, in addition to being an abominable crime, a senseless impoverishment of the person and of societlf". The pontiff noted Cuba's economic crisis since the early 1990s, saying this had created difficulties for family stability including "dissatisfaction for ideological reasons" and had intensified the problem of people emigrating. But his strongest criticism was reserved for the educational system. Without naming them, he referred to the island's rural boarding schools, which almost all Cuban adolescents are obliged to attend from age 14. The pope said they often caused "traumatic" separation between parents and children. Such experiences put young people in situations that resulted in "the spread of promiscuous behavior, loss of ethical values, coarseness, premarital sexual relations at an early age and easy recourse to abortion". "All this has a profoundly negative impact on young people," the pope said. His comments struck right at the heart of one of aspects of the Cuban revolution of which the government is most proud -- its free and universal education. In his welcoming speech for the pope Wednesday, Castro listed education as one of the main achievements of the Cuban revolution, telling John Paul he would be hard-pressed to find another country where they were fewer children without schooling. The rural schools are dreaded by some parents, who would prefer to keep their offspring under their control for a few more years and complain that the relaxed co-ed environment leads to early and casual sex, and to unwanted teenage pregnancies. Official figures show there were some 83,827 abortions for 140,276 births in Cuba in 1996 -- one of the highest rates in the world. The pope also openly urged a liberalization of education to allow a place for religion in Cuba, where all Church schools were nationalized in the early 1960s. "Parents...should be able to choose for their children the pedagogical method, the ethical and civic content and the religious inspiration which will enable them to receive an integral education," he said. The pope's outspoken attack in a nationally televised Mass was all the more extraordinary in a country where all media is state controlled and where criticism is usually confined to Cubans grumbling in their homes, or to dissidents. It reflected the risk President Fidel Castro has taken by inviting him to visit. The veteran Cuban leader has said the papal visit presents no threat to the revolution, stressing the points on which he and the pontiff agree and urging a warm welcome for him. In a last-minute decision, authorities broadcast the first Mass live on one of Cuba's state television channels, rather than only on a local station as previously announced. Before the pope reached the Mass site in Santa Clara, the crowd, led by a priest, chanted rhyming slogans including: "John Paul our brother, Cubans love you...Long live the pope...You can hear it , you can feel it, John Paul is present." Above the Mass site, a huge portrait of the pope was erected on a hill where Che's guerrilla forces launched their attack to seize the city in December 1958, a key victory in the revolution that swept Castro to power. In the early years of the Cuban revolution, Catholics were discriminated against for practising their faith but the Church's relations with Castro's government have improved steadily in recent years and the pope's visit has sparked a surge in church attendance. The pontiff flew back to Havana after the Mass and was due to meet Castro for private talks later in the day.
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