30 Nov 2008

Cuban friar beatified

3:55 pm on 30 November 2008

The first beatification ceremony in Cuba has been held in front of thousands of Catholics and President Raul Castro.

Mr Castro sat in the first row at the mass conducted with a Vatican envoy for 19th Century friar Jose Olallo.

After Fidel Castro came to power in an armed revolution in 1959, Cuba expelled priests and Catholics faced decades of official atheism.

Ties improved after Cuba guaranteed religious freedom in 1992 and Pope John Paul II visited six years later.

Cuban state-run television showed several thousand people packed into a plaza in Camaguey, around 530 km from Havana, for the ceremony for Friar Olallo, who worked with cholera sufferers and died in 1889.

Raul Castro took over governing Cuba in 2006 when his brother fell ill.

He was made president in February and has since begun introducing reforms, such as allowing Cubans for the first time to buy cell phones and computers.

Catholic beatification is the third of the four steps to sainthood. In a rare move, the state-run newspaper Granma dedicated the front page of its Friday edition to Olallo's recognition by the Church.

In 2007, the Pope beatified another priest born in Cuba, but he was raised and died in Spain.