Pope Benedict XVI approved the itinerary for the trip he will make on March 26-28 to Cuba, where he will be received by President Raul Castro, the Catholic Bishops Conference of Cuba, or COCC, said Sunday.

The pontiff will travel from Mexico to the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba, 944 kilometers (585 miles) from Havana, on March 26, arriving in the early afternoon and "will be officially received by President Raul Castro Ruz, by the Catholic Bishops Conference of Cuba and by the archbishop of this city," Dionisio Garcia, the COCC said in a statement.

The program established for his stay on the communist-ruled island was presented to the pope by the officials in charge of his travels after the preparatory meetings they held with Cuban government and COCC authorities during the visit they made to Havana in mid-December.

The 84-year-old Benedict XVI will travel to Mexico and then to Cuba on his second visit to Latin America - he was in Brazil in 2007 - and his first to Spanish-speaking countries in the region.

The pope's trip will coincide with the celebration on the island of the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the image of the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, Cuba's patron saint.

The pontiff will be transported in an open vehicle from the airport to the archbishopric in Santiago de Cuba and on the afternoon of his arrival he will celebrate an open-air Mass on the Plaza de la Revolucion Antonio Maceo for the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary, the COCC said.

Later, he will travel to the nearby provincial town of El Cobre, where he will be housed in the priests' residence and the next day he will make a private visit to the sanctuary of the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre there to "pray for several minutes" before the saint's venerated image.

In August 2010, the image of the Virgin of Charity, accompanied by church authorities, began an unprecedented tour of the island, traveling some 30,000 kilometers (18,600 miles) to churches, schools, hospitals, prisons and public squares all over the country, a pilgrimage that concluded last Dec. 30 with a farewell Mass in Havana.

The pope's visit to Cuba will conclude in Havana, where upon his arrival in the capital at midday on March 27, he will be welcomed at Jose Marti airport by Cardinal Jaime Ortega, auxiliary bishops, religious and civil officials.

On that day, Benedict XVI will officially meet with Castro and also with Cuban Catholic authorities at the Apostolic Nunciature, where he will be staying.

Rounding out his agenda, the pope is scheduled on March 28 to celebrate a Mass on Havana's emblematic Plaza de la Revolution Jose Marti.

The pontiff's visit will be the second by a pope to Cuba, after John Paul II's "historic" 1998 trip to the island. 

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