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Cuba's Raul Castro Says He May Return to Church, Prayer Thanks to Witness of Pope Francis

( [email protected] ) May 11, 2015 05:30 PM EDT

Raul Castro
(Photo : AP Photo)
Cuban President Raul Castro gestures as he leaves a private meeting with Pope Francis on Sunday, May 10.

Cuban President Raul Castro has said Pope Francis' Christ-like kindness and compassion has inspired him to attend church and resume praying.

On Sunday, the Communist leader met with Francis at the Vatican and thanked the Pope for the role he has played in restoring diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba, CNN reports.

"I am very happy. I have come here to thank him for what he has done to begin solving the problems of the United States and Cuba," Castro said. "I promise to go to all his Masses, and with satisfaction. I read all the speeches of the pope, his commentaries, and if the pope continues this way, I will go back to praying and go back to the church. I'm not joking."

The New York Times notes that following the Cuban Revolution of the 1950s, the country's Communist government restricted religious worship and promoted atheism. Catholicism was particularly suppressed, as the government saw Vatican as part of the world capitalist system it opposed.

However, in 1996, Castro's brother and former president, Fidel, visited Pope John Paul II at the Vatican, thus re-establishing diplomatic relations. Cuban bishops have since received permits to build the first new church on the island since 1959.

Castro, who was baptized Catholic, added that the Pontiff "is a Jesuit, and I, in some way, am too ... I always studied at Jesuit schools." 

"I am from the Cuban Communist Party that doesn't allow believers, but now we are allowing it," he added. "It's an important step."

Over the past year, Pope Francis has also played a key role in mending the relationship between the United States and Cuba, writing personal letters to both leaders and allowing the Vatican to be used as a location for secret negotiations. In December 2014, the two countries renewed diplomatic ties and lifted a trade embargo for the first time in decades.

President Castro stopped off at the Vatican on the way home from attending the Russian World War II victory celebrations in Moscow. The BBC notes that Francis will make a two-day visit to Cuba on his way to the  United States in September, at the request of both the Cuban government and the Cuban Roman Catholic Church.

To commemorate their visit, Castro presented the Pontiff a painting of a cross by a Cuban artist, inspired by the plight of migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean - an issue the Pope has said is "near to his heart."

The Pope gifted Castro with a medal of St Martin of Tours, a French saint known for his care of the poor. He also gave him a copy of his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel).