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Cubans Display Religious Images to Welcome Island's Papal Visit

By John Rivera
The Baltimore Sun

Gladis Pose, clutching a plastic bag of groceries, walked across Plaza de la Revolucion Tuesday morning and saw an unbelievable sight: a giant picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus overlooking the Communist nation's political center.

"I don't have words. I don't have words," said the 56-year-old woman, filled with emotion. "You can see the tears in my eyes."

As Cuba welcomes Pope John Paul II, who arrives Wednesday for the first papal visit to this Caribbean island, the capital city has exploded with religious images that would have been illegal to display just a few years ago.

Until about a week ago, there were few outward signs that Cuba was expecting a papal visit, save for a few banners draped across churches.

Now, on almost every telephone pole is a light blue poster with the smiling visage of John Paul leaning against a crucifix. The same poster is hanging on the doors of hundreds of homes in the city.

The pedicabs that ferry tourists along the Malecon, Havana's famous waterfront promenade, are emblazoned with posters welcoming the pope. Billboards that just a few days ago featured the image of President Fidel Castro urging citizens to vote in last week's one-party elections for the national assembly have been papered over with a purple papal message: "Bienvenidos Su Santidad, Juan Pablo II." Welcome Your Holiness, John Paul II.

But it is perhaps the image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus overlooking the Plaza de la Revolucion, the site of some of Castro's most important rallies and speeches, that is the most startling for Cubans. Normally the only visage keeping vigil at the plaza is the modernistic, black wrought-iron relief of the socialist saint of the Cuban Revolution, Ernesto "Che" Guevara.

"For us, it's incredible," said Lazaro Lopez Lima, 61, who came to the plaza to see the image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The picture is extremely important for Catholics and a copy hangs in many churches, as well as on the wall of the homes of the devout.

The famous image, showing Jesus with his heart displayed in front of him, is attached to the front of the National Library, and will be visible behind the altar where John Paul will celebrate the final Mass of his five-day visit Sunday.

"It's been 39 years since we've seen something like this," Lopez said. "You can't imagine the happiness we feel."