The Vatican is hoping a 2ft crocodile can produce a thaw in its relations with Communist Cuba, as the Pope prepares to visit the island later this month.
The creature – a rare Cuban variety of the reptile – was captured by an Italian during a trip there and smuggled to Italy inside a sock hidden in a suitcase in 2011, before being confiscated by officials and ending up in Rome's Bio Park Zoo.
But now, with much pomp and ceremony, the animal has been named the zoo's ambassador for the environment and is being sent back to the Caribbean island with the blessing of the Holy See.
"I hope that the crocodile has a good journey," said Giovanni Becciu, former Vatican diplomatic representative to Cuba, who attended the ceremony.
The two-year-old reptile will be returned to its home in Cuba as a symbolic gesture "to show that man should stop devastating nature", said Paolo Giuntarelli, the head of Rome's zoo.
The Catholic Church has not always enjoyed good relations with the Cuban government and observers say the Vatican's gesture is aimed at smoothing things over ahead of the Pope's upcoming visit.
Benedict XVI will depart for a trip to Mexico and Cuba on 26 March and the crocodile will set off for Cuba on the day the pontiff's journey begins. "I'm sure the people of such a magical and enchanted island will give as warm a welcome to the crocodile as they will to the Pope," Mr Becciu said.
The Cuban crocodile is on the endangered-species list of the International Union for Conservation of Nature; its population has dropped by 80 per cent and it only survives on a small area of the island.
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