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Delicate dance between Catholic Church and Cuba's Communist government

Pope Benedict arrives in Cuba, 14 years after Pope John Paul's visit to the island. The Pope's visit is expected to help strengthen ties with the Cuban Catholic Church.  NBC's Mark Potter reports.

HAVANA, Cuba – At the historic San Francisco de Paula church, in a working-class neighborhood of Havana, Auxiliary Bishop Alfredo Petit recently walked the long hallways where priests, nuns and lay workers were busy caring for some of Cuba's elderly and infirm and also operating an orphanage. Outside the church is a sign welcoming the pope: "Bienvenido a Cuba Benedicto XVI."

Petit hopes during the pontiff's three-day visit to the island his messages will provide an important boost for the Cuban Catholic Church and perhaps even inspire some gradual changes in Cuban society.  "I don't know what the words will be, but I think they will suggest more respect for human dignity,” he said.

Since the Cuban revolution in 1959, the Catholic Church has struggled to raise its public profile here. For decades, under the Marxist government of Fidel Castro, the church was ostracized and believers were punished. The country was officially declared atheist until the government loosened that description in the 1990's.

But, with Fidel Castro out of power now and his younger brother, Raul, in charge, the church has become much more accepted by the government. Recently, Cuban Cardinal Jamie Ortega negotiated the release of more than 100 political prisoners, although he was criticized by human rights activists after most of the prisoners were sent into exile.

NBC analyst George Weigel discusses Pope Benedict's trip to Cuba and that Vatican's firm anti-communism stance.

"The church has now been accepted as a legitimate and important interlocutor of the government on sensitive topics like freeing political prisoners, the conditions of those in prison, the treatment of dissidents," said Jorge Dominguez, a professor at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.  "This is a wholly unprecedented role for the Roman Catholic in Cuba for the past half century."

With funds and supplies donated from overseas, the church also provides much-needed social services now as the government struggles to reshape Cuba's troubled economy. Church-run food banks and retirement homes along with medicine distribution centers have become lifelines many of Cuba's extremely poor.

"It is very convenient for the government that the church will engage in activities providing for people in need," said Juan Clark, a Miami Dade College professor emeritus and an expert on the Cuban Church.

Still, tensions remain over the issues of religious and personal freedoms.

Last year, the church convinced state security to stop harassing the "Ladies in White," a church-based dissident group. However, two weekends ago, three-dozen members of the group were detained during a protest march in Havana. Ironically, 13 other dissidents who recently sought sanctuary in a Havana basilica were turned over by church officials to police, sparking accusations the church may have actually grown too close to Cuban leaders.

Pope Benedict is now urging Cuba to find new alternatives to Marxism – patiently and peacefully – as the Catholic Church maintains a delicate relationship with the Communist government here. 

The pope’s first stop on Monday will be Santiago de Cuba, the island's second city where he will celebrate a large open-air mass. On Tuesday, he visits the town of El Cobre, home to a tiny wooden statue of Our Lady of Charity, a symbol revered by all Cubans – Catholic and non-Catholic alike.

Later that day he flies to Havana for what is expected to be a meeting with both Raul and Fidel Castro. On Wednesday morning he will celebrate another mass in Havana before departing the country.