Pope Francis arrives in Havana

  • 20/09/2015
Pope Francis waves to crowd from the Popemobile in Havana (AAP)
Pope Francis waves to crowd from the Popemobile in Havana (AAP)

Pope Francis has urged the United States and Cuba to pursue their nascent reconciliation as he arrived in Havana on the first leg of a high-profile trip that will also take him to America.

Cuban President Raul Castro was at Jose Marti airport to greet the Argentine pontiff, whose white skullcap blew off in a tropical wind as he exited his Alitalia plane.

But Francis barely skipped a beat, blessing a group of children who greeted him with flowers and then - highlighting his role in brokering the Cold War foes' historic rapprochement - calling on Castro and US President Barack Obama not to falter on the road to closer ties.

"For some months now, we have witnessed an event which fills us with hope: the process of normalising relations between two peoples following years of estrangement," he said in a speech delivered on the tarmac.

"I urge political leaders to persevere on this path and to develop all its potentialities ... as an example of reconciliation for the entire world."

He also pledged the Church's support for the Cuban people, who face tight restrictions on their civil liberties under the communist regime and bear the weight of the economic woes that decades of isolation have wrought on the island.

Recalling Pope Benedict XVI's 2012 trip to Cuba and John Paul II's visit in 1998, Francis said that "today we renew those bonds of co-operation and friendship, so that the Church can continue to support and encourage the Cuban people in their hopes and concerns," he said.

He added that the Church needed "the freedom and the means" to do its work on the island, which was an atheist state for more than three decades until a gradual reconciliation with religion in which John Paul II's visit played a key part.

Francis, 78, looked tired from the long trip from Rome, but smiled warmly at the throngs of well-wishers who greeted him.

His tour will also take him on his first-ever visit to the United States, where he will give landmark speeches to the US Congress and the UN General Assembly next week.