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Pope Francis to visit Cuba ahead of US trip

The pope will be stopping by Cuba en route to the United States, where he will address Congress and the United Nations. The pontiff's visit may serve as a diplomatic push for progress between Washington and Havana.

"I can confirm that the Holy Father will make a stopover in Cuba before arriving in the United States, for the trip that was announced already some time ago," Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi told reporters on Wednesday.

However, Lombardi did not provide dates regarding the trip, solely adding that the pope accepted invitations from both the Cuban government and the Cuban Roman Catholic Church.

The announcement comes days after reports emerged that

the pope had "taken into consideration the idea of carrying out a leg to Cuba"

en route to the US.

Pontifical diplomacy

During the trip, Francis will speak at the UN headquarters in New York, attend a rally for families in Philadelphia, visit the White House and meet with US President Barack Obama. He will also become the first pope to address Congress.

The trip is seen as a positive step towards pushing Cuban-American relations forward. The pontiff was instrumental in negotiating

the historic rapprochement between Washington and Havana

announced December 2014. He wrote to the leaders of both countries and hosted their delegations at the Vatican for final negotiations in October.

Following in the footsteps of his predecessors

Pope Francis' visit will be the first to Cuba since he became pontiff. Both John Paul II and former Pope Benedict XVI visited the socialist country and met with Fidel Castro, Cuba's revolutionary leader.

In 1988, the late John Paul II said Cuba should "open itself up to the world, and may the world open itself up to Cuba" during his visit.

During a trip in 2012, former Pope Benedict XVI voiced the Vatican's long-standing position that the US embargo was hurting the most vulnerable on the island and should be dropped. Francis has also spoken against the embargo as well as socialism.

ls/sms (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)

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