VATICAN CITY -- Pope Benedict XVI said Thursday there are growing signs of religious freedom in Cuba and that there is an opportunity for reconciliation between the communist nation and the United States.
Welcoming Havana's new ambassador to the Vatican, Benedict also expressed sympathy for Cuba's suffering during the global downturn as well as "the devastating effects of natural disasters and the economic embargo."
President Barack Obama has loosened some travel and financial restrictions, and the two countries have discussed re-establishing direct mail links. Still, Washington has made clear it has no intention of ending its embargo unless Cuba undertakes political, economic and social reform.
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Benedict told Eduardo Delgado Bermudez that "certain signs of openness in relations with the neighboring United States presage new opportunities for a mutually beneficial rapprochement."
He spoke in Spanish and the Vatican provided an official English translation.
Benedict cited encouraging signs of religious freedom, including the celebration of Mass in some prisons, a new tolerance of religious processions, the refurbishment of some church buildings, and the extension of social security to the clergy.
"It is my hope that tangible signs of openness in the exercise of religious freedom will continue to increase, as has been happening over recent years," Benedict said in a speech.
Cuba's single-party, communist government never outlawed religion, but expelled priests and closed religious schools when Fidel Castro took power in January 1959.
Relations between the church and the government have improved considerably since Pope John Paul II toured the island in 1998.
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