HAVANA (CWN) - The head of Cuba's National Assembly said on Tuesday that the Communist government is seriously considering Pope John Paul's request to release hundreds of political prisoners in the country.

      The Holy Father called on the government to release prisoners of conscience during a Mass in Havana last Sunday, the last day of his landmark visit to the Caribbean island. "The request will be considered in all seriousness, above all given the way in which it was made and who made it," Speaker Ricardo Alarcon told the state-run Prensa Latina news agency. The Cuban government has consistently denied detaining any political prisoners, but referred to the request as an "appeal for clemency by the pope similar to those he has made in many places." The Holy Father asked that the prisoners be released into Cuban society and not expelled from the country as they have in the past.

      Alarcon suggested that there could be sentence reductions or early releases on humanitarian grounds for aged or ill prisoners convicted of common crimes or other offenses. The Vatican indicated it has received no response to the Pope's plea from the Cuban government. Human rights activists and dissidents have said they are hoping for the release of as many as 200 prisoners.

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January 29, 1998 volume 9, no. 21          DAILY CATHOLIC