The preparations for Pope Benedict XVI's three-day visit to Cuba have produced some unusual sights and sounds there lately.

A church van with a megaphone drove around one Havana neighborhood recently, calling Cubans out of their homes to a gathering in a nearby park, with the message that God loves them.

The number of churchgoing Catholics on the island is growing again, but it remains less than 10 percent, and the call to gather was a rare exception to the Communist government's ban on public acts of religious proselytism.

Benedict's will be the first papal visit to the island since John Paul II's historic trip in 1998. Two outdoor public masses will give Benedict a chance to address the Cuban people, and all sides of Cuba's long political conflict will be looking for a little sympathy from the pope.

The pope will lead an outdoor Mass on Wednesday in Havana's huge Plaza of the Revolution, and workers there have been building a special stage under the smoldering gaze of Che Guevara, whose likeness stares down from the side of government offices.

Cuba has come a long way from the religious persecutions of the past, but the church is still not allowed to have its own schools or television channel. Still, church spokesman Orlando Marquez says the pope's visit is a clear show of support for its growing role as advocate for greater freedom and as a mediator in Cuba's political divisions.

"Among all the countries he could visit, he decided to come to Cuba and Mexico," Marquez says. "Cuba as a tradition is a Catholic country, but it's not a huge Catholic country compared to Mexico or Brazil. Nevertheless, he decided to come ... in this special moment of our history."

Jesuit-educated Raul Castro has shown an even greater willingness than his brother, Fidel, to let the Roman Catholic Church back into Cuba's public affairs. Catholic leaders have gently pushed the government to open the economy and political system and have secured the release of scores of political prisoners.

Berta Soler, the leader of the Ladies in White dissident group, says she expects the pope to make a strong statement for human rights and freedom, but says the government will manipulate Benedict for its own political gains.

"What I can tell you is that the Cuban people need freedom, and the Holy Father can't bring freedom to Cuba. Only the Cuban people can do that," she says.

Soler's group has asked for a brief meeting with the pope, while other dissidents have been more insistent, staging protests in churches or urging Benedict to cancel his visit.

Unlike Paul, Benedict is something of a mystery here, and everyone seems to be expecting something from him. The government wants a condemnation of the U.S. embargo. American officials and Cuban dissidents want him to criticize Communist authorities. As for ordinary Cubans, it's more difficult to decipher.

On a recent night in Havana's blue-collar Cotorro neighborhood, worshippers staged a Via Crucis procession in the streets. Barbara Rodriguez, now in her 50s, had never seen such a thing in the neighborhood.

"We're in the streets, worshiping God freely, and that's a milestone for us Catholics," she says.

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