Pope Francis will visit Cuba in September

Pope Francis will visit Cuba on his way to the United States in September, the Vatican said Wednesday — a trip that will come months after he helped negotiate a diplomatic thaw between the two countries.

The exact timing of the Cuba trip wasn’t immediately released, but the Vatican said the Pope would stop in Cuba before his planned late September stops in Washington, New York and Philadelphia.

In Havana’s Cathedral Square, people reacted joyously to the news.

“The Pope coming here, maybe he could … make more positive ways for Cubans to go towards religion, more than politics,” said Raul Garcia, a Cuban-American who returned to the island. “I think it’s going to be a very good visit, very beneficial for the country.”

“We are waiting for him. We’re very happy he is coming,” said Ulises, a man who sells brightly colored paintings of antique cars to tourists on the street next to the sprawling Havana Cathedral. “He should come and get to know it and walk around the pretty spots in Havana.”

Cuba’s state-run television reported that Francis would visit, but like the Vatican did not report exactly when he would arrive.

Francis, the first pope from Latin America, played a role in restarting diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States, earning praise from both U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro.

The Pope made personal pleas to Obama and Cuban leaders in private letters, writing that the two nations should try to reset their relations after decades of friction. The Vatican also hosted talks between U.S. and Cuban delegations in October, where they hashed out aspects of a new trade policy and discussed the release of jailed American contractor Alan Gross, who was freed as part of the detente between the two countries.

“I want to thank His Holiness, Pope Francis, whose moral example shows us the importance of pursuing the world as it should be, rather than simply settling for the world as it is,” Obama said in December as he announced a U.S. policy shift on Cuba.

Since his election in 2013, Pope Francis has displayed a deep interest in international affairs. He repeatedly urged Western leaders not to bomb Syria, hosted a prayer service between Israeli and Palestinian leaders at the Vatican and waded into diplomatic controversy last week by referring to the killing of 1.5 million Armenians a century ago as a “genocide.” The latter move deeply upset Turkish leaders, who recalled their Vatican ambassador.

The Pope is expected to continue his international activism in July with a trip to South America, where he will visit Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay.

In late September, Francis will visit Washington, where he will address Congress; New York, where he will address the U.N. General Assembly; and Philadelphia, where he will celebrate a public Mass that’s expected to draw more than 1 million people.

Francis will be the third consecutive leader of the Roman Catholic Church to visit Cuba. St. John Paul II stopped there for several days in 1998, and Pope Benedict XVI visited for three days in 2012.

Church officials in Havana said that they expect Francis’ visit to be shorter than those of his predecessors. Officials from the Vatican are expected to travel to the island soon to finalize logistics for Francis’ trip, the officials said.

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