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POPE ACCEPTS INVITATION TO VISIT CUBA

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Pope John Paul II accepted Fidel Castro's invitation to visit Cuba next year as the two leaders met face-to-face for the first time Tuesday.

The pope has agreed to go, and "the only thing missing is the date in 1997," said papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls. Long-term preparations will begin shortly, he said.Cuba is the only Latin American country that the 76-year-old pope has yet to visit. Navarro make it clear that Castro wants the pope to come to the communist island off south Florida.

He said a Cuban stop in October during a previously scheduled trip to Brazil was one possibility but would not rule out other dates. The Brazil trip is the pope's only scheduled visit to the Western Hemisphere next year.

Quoting Castro at the end of the 35-minute meeting, Navarro-Valls said, " `Your Holiness, I hope to see you soon in Cuba.' "

Vatican officials said John Paul's acceptance implies that Castro's government has agreed to theusual conditions for papal trips - that the pope can travel anywhere he wants and meet with anyone.

They discussed "national reconciliation," which Navarro said was not just limited to Cubans on the island, indicating the phrase also involved Cuban exiles in Florida.

Castro's motorcade drove through St. Peter's Square on a damp, chilly morning, with a machine-gun poking through the sun-roof of an Italian security car. He was greeted by an honor contingent of Swiss Guards.

Vatican Television showed Castro, wearing a dark suit, shaking the pope's hand and then sitting opposite him at a narrow table. The two men spoke in Spanish. Afterward, they posed for photographs and exchanged gifts.

Castro then met with Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican's secretary of state, and went to lunch with cardinals who have visited Cuba at a hotel near the Vatican. He visited the Sistine Chapel Tuesday afternoon.

Navarro refused to discuss whether the issue of human rights was raised by the pope. Instead, he pointed to a formal Vatican communique issued after the meeting, which called for the "normalization" of conditions for the church in Cuba and the role of believers in the life of the country.

The issue of the long-standing U.S. embargo on Cuba did not come up in the discussions, according to Navarro.

"The position of the Holy See is so clear, there was no need to elaborate on it," he said, adding that the pope had opened the World Food Summit in Rome last week condemning the use of economic and food embargoes.

On one side of Tuesday's historic meeting was a bearded 70-year-old Cuban whose revolution has endured for nearly four decades and become a cultural icon for the left.

The other was a pole who leads nearly 1 billion Roman Catholics and helped bring down communism in the Soviet bloc - deepening Cuba's isolation.

The pope was expected to push for greater political liberty and more freedom for the church, such as better access to the media and permission for foreign priests to work in Cuba.

John Paul would like to see the church play a role in any political transition, as it did during the collapse of communism in Poland.