President Fidel Castro praised Pope John Paul II Monday for his support of world peace and defense of the poor before joining other communist leaders, diplomats and church officials at Havana's cathedral for a funeral Mass in the pontiff's honor.
"Rest in peace, tireless fighter for friendship among peoples, enemy of war and friend of the poor," Castro wrote Monday afternoon in the condolences book at the Papal Nunciature, the Vatican's mission in Havana.
Accompanied by his younger brother and designated successor, Defense Minister Raul Castro, President Castro also recalled John Paul as an "unforgettable friend" who would be remembered on the island for speaking out against the U.S. trade embargo during his January 1998 visit.
"This earned you the gratitude and the affection of all Cubans forever," Castro wrote.
The Cuban president, dressed in a dark suit and tie, later traveled to the Havana cathedral for the Mass celebrated by the island's highest ranking Roman Catholic prelate, Cardinal Jaime Ortega.
Thousands filled the towering cathedral and an adjacent plaza for the elaborate ceremony, which lasted nearly two hours. Ortega shook hands with Castro before approaching the pulpit to deliver the homily for John Paul.
"His realistic and prophetic vision of the world is not erased with his passage," Ortega said of the pope. "It stays, like a luminous lighthouse for the Church and humanity."
Ortega was to leave late Monday for Rome, where he will attend John Paul's funeral and participate in the gathering of cardinals who will elect a new pope.
The Vatican's nuncio to Cuba, Archbishop Luigi Bonazzi, also spoke at the Mass, recalling John Paul's visit to the island, and several choir members wearing bright blue robes sang.
Church officials said it was the first time Castro has made a public appearance inside the cathedral in decades. He sat in the front pew, just rows away from James Cason, the top U.S. diplomat on the island and a Castro adversary.
Cuba never broke ties with the Vatican, even during the years that the island was officially atheist in the years after the 1959 revolution that brought Castro to power. The government removed references to atheism in the constitution in 1991 and allowed religious believers to join the Communist Party.
Other high-ranking communist officials at the Monday Mass included Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque, National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon, Culture Minister Abel Prieto, Vice President Carlos Lage, and Vice President Jose Ramon Hernandez.
State television announced that Alarcon would head Cuba's delegation to the papal funeral on Friday. Other delegation members will include Caridad Diego, head of religious affairs for Cuba's Communist Party, and Cuba's new ambassador to the Vatican, Raul Roa Kouri.
VANESSA ARRINGTON, Associated Press Writer