THE Pope has joined world leaders in expressing his condolences to the family of the Communist revolutionary and former President of Cuba, Fidel Castro, who died last Friday, aged 90.
But for many Cubans his death was a cause for celebration and hope after decades of human-rights violations during his rule, including the repression of religious freedom.
Pope Francis, who met Mr Castro in Havana last year, sent a telegram to his younger brother and successor, the current President, Raúl Castro, on Saturday, to “express my sentiments of sorrow. . . I offer prayers to the Lord for his rest.”
The Pope spent 30 minutes talking to Fidel Castro in a private meeting at his home during his three-day tour of Cuba in September of last year. The Pope said afterwards that the pair did not discuss “the past”, except for Castro’s memories of his Jesuit education and a Jesuit priest whom he had known (News, 25 September 2015).
Castro, a professed atheist, was thought to have rejected the Roman Catholic Church of his childhood after the 1959 Cuban revolution, when he successfully led an armed revolt against the dictatorship of the then President, Fulgencio Batista.
Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia described Castro as “a sincere friend of the Russian Orthodox Church”. In a letter to Castro’s successor, his brother Raúl, he wrote: “Comandante Fidel was one of the most famous and outstanding state leaders of today. He gained international authority and became a legend already in his lifetime.
”Being flesh of the flesh of the Cuban people, he devoted all his power to make his homeland truly independent and occupy a worthy place in the world family of nations.”
On the consecration of Our Lady of Kazan Orthodox Cathedral, in Havana, in October 2008, Castro wrote in his reflections that he had established the cathedral “as a monument to Cuban-Russian friendship” because the Russian Orthodox Church had not been “an ally of imperialism” after the demise of the Soviet Union.
But the President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention in the United States, the Revd Russell Moore, tweeted on Saturday: “Fidel Castro’s death should be a reminder to pray for freedom, including religious freedom, for the long-oppressed Cuban people.”
Religious persecution was rife during Fidel Castro’s rule. In 1961, Christians were banned from joining the Communist Party of Cuba, and some religious buildings, including RC schools, were confiscated.
Those who were considered to be anti-revolutionary or “anti-social” — including Protestant pastors, Roman Catholic priests, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Seventh Day Adventists — were also sent to agricultural labour camps, known as Military Units to Aid Production, in the first years of his rule.
Cuba was declared an atheist state in 1976, but renamed a secular state after the fall of the Soviet Union (USSR) in 1991. On a visit to the country in 1998, Pope John Paul II called for increased religious freedom on the island.
A spokeswoman for Christian Solidarity Worldwide said on Tuesday: “Although his influence on the day-to-day policy had declined in recent years, hostile policies towards religious groups have continued under the current President. It is our hope that the government will reflect at this critical moment, and allow for the full realisation of the right to freedom of religion or belief in Cuba.”
The Cuban revolution also severed relations with the US, and diplomatic tensions between the two nations were high during the Cold War. The US imposed an embargo on commercial trade with Cuba, which is still in force, although President Obama and Raúl Castro sought to restore relations in 2014.
President Obama said that “we extend a hand of friendship to the Cuban people. We know that this moment fills Cubans — in Cuba and in the United States — with powerful emotions, recalling the countless ways in which Fidel Castro altered the course of individual lives, families, and of the Cuban nation.”
President-elect Donald Trump, who has spoken out against the restoration of Cuban/US relations, did not offer condolences. He described Castro as “a brutal dictator who oppressed his own people for nearly six decades. Fidel Castro’s legacy is one of firing squads, theft, unimaginable suffering, poverty, and the denial of fundamental human rights.”
But there were also celebrations. Cubans and Cuban Americans gathered in the streets of Little Havana neighbourhood of Miami, at the weekend, drinking champagne and waving flags.
The Archbishop of the RC diocese of Miami, the Most Revd Thomas Wenski, said: “Fidel Castro has died. Now he awaits the judgement of God, who is merciful but also just. His death provokes many emotions — both in and outside the island.”
Castro was cremated on Saturday, and the casket lay in state at the José Martí Memorial in Havana for three days. It was later carried along the route of his 1959 victory tour to the south-eastern city of Santiago de Cuba, where his ashes will be interred on Sunday.