ROME, Italy, Tuesday May 12, 2015 – While Cuba’s constitution was amended to prohibit discrimination against religion in 1992, there had been no indication that the communist Caribbean island’s executive office may be changing its stance on faith.
That changed this weekend when President Raul Castro said the teachings of Pope Francis had persuaded him not only to take a softer line on religion, but perhaps to return to the faith he grew up in as a student at Jesuit schools.
“As I’ve already told my council of advisers, I read all of the Pope’s speeches,” the Cuban president said. “If the Pope continues to speak like this, sooner or later I will start praying again and I will return to the Catholic Church – and I’m not saying this jokingly.”
Speaking in Rome on Sunday following his first-ever meeting with the pope, Castro said he would be among the throngs flocking to see the pontiff speak during his visit to Cuba in September.
“I promise that I will go to all of his Masses – and with satisfaction. I left the meeting this morning impressed, very impressed by his knowledge, his wisdom, modesty, and by all the virtues that we know he has,” Castro said.
The president’s brother Fidel Castro, who came to power following the 1959 revolution, has been quoted as saying: “I am a Marxist-Leninist and shall be one until the end of my life.”
He was referring to the ideology of Karl Marx, the German co-author of “The Communist Manifesto,” and Vladimir Lenin, a socialist who led what is now Russia from 1917 to 1924.
Karl Marx once wrote, “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”
Catholics and followers of other religions were heavily persecuted in the early days of Fidel Castro’s rule.
Church property was seized; worshippers were targeted, sometimes violently; priests and ministers were imprisoned or forced into exile, and parents who had once embraced their faith began raising their children in secular households to avoid discrimination.
While religious persecution was officially eased 23 years ago in Cuba, the US State Department wrote in its 2014 annual report that Havana still restricted religious activities.
Both Pope John Paul II, who visited the island in 1998, and Pope Benedict XVI, who took an “apostolic journey” there in 2012, were nevertheless warmly received.
In January, officials announced that the first Catholic church under the Castros’ administration would be built in Sandino, a town of 39,000 in the west of the country.
“I am a communist of the Cuban Communist Party,” Raul Castro said Sunday. “The party never allowed the believers. Now we are allowing that believers also be part. This is an important step.”
Indicating that he is Jesuit “to a degree” because of the schools he attended in his youth, the president said Cuba was also striving toward political and economic reform.
Francis, the first pope from Latin America, has already played an important role in at least one aspect of change in Cuba. In December, President Castro thanked the pontiff for his involvement in efforts to thaw diplomatic relations with the United States. The Vatican and Canadian government were key facilitators in the talks, which began in June 2013.
In a 2014 letter, and later during an in-person meeting, the pope urged US President Barack Obama to pursue a closer relationship with the United States’ island neighbour and ease the aid and trade sanctions that have been in place since the 1960s.
“This expression by President Barack Obama deserves the respect and recognition by all the people, and I want to thank and recognize support from the Vatican and especially from Pope Francis for the improvement of relations between Cuba and the United States,” President Castro said at the time.
Meanwhile, the Vatican described the pope’s 50-minute Sunday meeting with Castro as “very friendly” and said the two exchanged gifts.
The Holy See gave the Cuban president a medallion depicting St Martin of Tours, the patron saint of beggars, cloaking the poor, along with a copy of “Evangelii gaudium,” the pope’s 2013 apostolic exhortation that has been hailed as the “Magna Carta of church reform.”
The Cuban president presented the pope with a commemorative medal from Havana’s Cathedral of The Virgin Mary of the Immaculate Conception, along with a painting by a Cuban artist depicting a migrant praying to a cross made of wrecked barges, a statement on the plight of migrants and refugees throughout the world.