Cuba's Castro meets Catholic Church leaders

Cuban President Raul Castro (left) meets Cardinal Jaime Ortega and Archbishop Dionisio Garcia (right), president of the Cuban bishops' conference, in Havana Church sources said the talks touched on the issue of imprisoned dissidents

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Cuban President Raul Castro has held a rare meeting with leading members of the Catholic Church.

Mr Castro met Cardinal Jaime Ortega, head of the country's Church, along with Archbishop Dionisio Garcia of Santiago.

Wednesday's talks touched on the sensitive issue of imprisoned political dissidents, Church sources said, without providing details.

This comes ahead of a visit next month by the Vatican's foreign secretary.

Dissidents hope that the visit of Archbishop Dominique Memberti could lead to the release of some political prisoners, says the BBC's Michael Voss in Havana.

The official Communist party newspaper - Granma - said the discussions had covered relations between Church and state, as well as international and domestic issues.

'Small steps'

Archbishop Garcia, the head of Cuba's bishops' conference, was cautious when asked whether the discussion might lead to an agreement to free dissidents.

"There will be a process and this process has to start with small steps and these steps will be made," he was quoted as saying by AFP. "We hope that the conversation will go in that direction."

Earlier this month Cardinal Ortega successfully mediated between the Cuban authorities and a group of wives and female relatives of imprisoned dissidents, known as the Ladies in White.

That resulted in the group being allowed to resume their Sunday marches in Havana free from harassment by government supporters.

In the early days of the revolution, Cuba officially became an atheist state, but relations with the Church have been steadily improving since Pope John Paul II's historic visit in 1998.

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