WASHINGTON--Pope Benedict XVI will use his upcoming trip to Cuba to press for the release of Alan Gross, a Jewish man who has languished in a Cuban jail for more than two years, according to Gross' supporters.
That's the latest Ronald Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, said he has heard through Vatican back channels.
In recent weeks, the council has circulated a petition asking the pope to intercede on Gross' behalf when he visits the island on March 26-28.
"He represents humanitarianism and cherished values, and hopefully his presence could help lead to Alan Gross' release," Halber said.
Gross, 62, an international development worker from suburban Washington, was arrested in Havana in December 2009. He was on a mission, through a federal government contractor, to increase Internet access for Cuba's small Jewish community.
A year ago, a Cuban court sentenced him to 15 years in prison for "acts against the independence of the territorial integrity of the State."
Benedict's visit will be the first papal trip to Cuba since Pope John Paul II visited in 1998.
Several thousand people have signed the petition so far, said Halber, who expects the numbers to increase as the pope's visit draws closer.
The petition, which is addressed to the Vatican's ambassador in Washington, asks the pope to press for Gross' release on humanitarian grounds, and notes that the formerly 250-pound aid worker has lost more than 100 pounds while in jail, and that both his physical and emotional health are failing.
"Alan's life was dedicated to improving the lives of others, particularly those less fortunate," the petition reads.
"He worked in more than 50 countries -- including Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, and several African nations -- and never had any legal trouble in any of the countries he worked in or visited, until now."
Since his arrest, the State Department has been working toward Gross' release, and his supporters have held weekly vigils outside the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, the closest thing to a Cuban embassy in Washington.
The United States does not have official diplomatic relations with Cuba. The Caribbean nation, officially an atheist country until the early 1990s, counts about 10 percent of the population as Catholic.