- Title: POPE-CUBA/CASTROS Cuba's atheist Castro brothers open doors to Church and popes
- Date: 7th September 2015
- Summary: SANTIAGO DE CUBA, CUBA (FILE - MARCH 2012) (REUTERS) VARIOUS OF CUBAN PRESIDENT RAUL CASTRO GREETING FORMER POPE BENEDICT XVI IN THE AIRPORT
- Embargoed: 22nd September 2015 13:00
- Topics: General
- Reuters ID: LVA1V7157HBK4KGIJK6E4EB98X55
- Aspect Ratio: 16:9
- Story Text: EDIT CONTAINS VIDEO THAT WAS ORIGINALLY 4:3
Baptized as Roman Catholics and educated by Jesuits, Fidel and Raul Castro turned against the Church by declaring Cuba an atheist state, chasing out priests and shutting down religious schools after seizing power in a 1959 revolution.
In their old age, however, they have brought the Church in from the cold and are gracious and experienced hosts for regular papal visits.
Pope John Paul made a historic visit to Cuba, the first by any pontiff, in 1998 and Pope Benedict followed in 2012. Both met with the Castro brothers.
Those visits showcased and gave momentum to a slow and cautious process of change in Cuba since the end of the Cold War.
"I wish that Cuba would open all of its magnificent possibilities to the world and that the world would open to Cuba," the John Paul said as he met with Fidel Castro in Havana in 1998.
When Pope Francis lands in Cuba on September 19, he will be the third pontiff in a row to visit the Communist-run island.
His three-night stay highlights the new relationship between Church and state in Cuba and a marked softening of the Castros' stance toward the religion they grew up with and then fought.
In return, the Church has become less confrontational and it played a major role in securing last year's rapprochement between Cuba and the United States.
For political analyst, Aurelio Alonso, the Castros´ developing stance was evident in a specific incident.
"Among the most interesting aspects of Cuban politics was Fidel Castro´s political vision during what just happened, in which if you look carefully, the public stage, for the first time in the history of the revolution, was not in the hands of Fidel but the Pope. In other words, Fidel gave the Pope the stage without interfering," Alonso told Reuters.
For Lenier Gonzalez, an analyst of religious affairs, the Pope´s recent role in politics is a development of a process of improving relations which has developed over time.
"The relationship between the Catholic Church in Cuba and the Cuban government has improved over many years. The relationship used to be tense, very complex, but since John Paul II´s visit, both parties have been willing to negotiate, to move closer, and this has made way for areas of collaboration between the Church and the Cuban government which have grown, leading to the present day in which the Church, the Holy See and Pope Francis participated and facilitated the process of Cuba and the United States coming together," said Gonzalez.
Fidel Castro, 89 years old and retired, has repeatedly praised Christian values and counts as a close friend the Brazilian priest and intellectual Frei Betto.
Raul Castro, 84 and his brother's successor as president, has gone even further, opening talks with Church leaders inside Cuba and making concessions such as freeing dozens of political prisoners and allowing religious processions.
Both were educated by Jesuits, and Jesuit Superior General in Cuba, Father Juan Miguel Arregui, sees that as an important basis for developing closer relations with the Church.
"I think there are some areas in common deep down, the cultural and spiritual background that we have in common with them (Fidel and Raul Castros)-- each one has created his own path, but that background is there and I think it is the moment for us to recover the best of that so that in the future the relationship will have greater confidence, and that will reap more benefits. I am confident that all of this will help, and that Pope Francis´s step will be a step forward in this relationship and this ability to work more freely for the good of Cuban society," said Arregui.
The Church has supported Castro's efforts to reform the Soviet-style command economy and Pope Francis personally acted as mediator when Cuba and the United States agreed to put aside their Cold War-era hostilities.
Raul Castro met Francis earlier this year at the Vatican and said he was impressed with his "wisdom and modesty."
"If the pope continues to talk as he does, sooner or later I will start praying again and return to the Catholic Church, and I am not kidding," Castro told reporters, in a comment that raised eyebrows around the world.
Whilst the Castros have changed their tone, so too has the Church, and for Gonzalez, this is a key reason for reconciliation.
"Pope Francis has shifted these topics and has put in first place a critique of the world system, of global capitalism and the role that capital plays in the world system, with very strong criticism of these systems. His argument is focused on the marginalised poor who live on the edge of this system. He strongly criticises neoliberalism, and supports the idea of "The great Motherland", in other words, Jorge Mario Bergoglio presents a Latin American argument. Some people have claimed there are Peronist ideas in his arguments, Latin-American thinking which is unprecedented in Papal history. So this falls in line with the political discourse and agenda of the Cuban government," said Gonzalez.
In 1959, a majority of the clergy in Cuba were Spanish and deeply conservative. Many were imbued with anti-communism from the Spanish civil war and sided with the United States, so a rift was perhaps inevitable when Fidel Castro's rebels overthrew dictator Fulgencio Batista.
While Cuba's government still harasses dissidents, it has released many of the more high-profile peaceful opponents from long prison terms, a process helped by the Church's nudging.
The government has also sought to improve ties with moderate Cuban-Americans and more changes are expected now that it has renewed diplomatic relations with the United States after decades of hostility.
The Church is a clear beneficiary. Christmas became a public holiday again in Cuba after Pope John Paul's visit and Easter after Pope Benedict was here. Two new churches are being built, one in Havana and one in the western province Pinar del Rio, for the first time since 1959.
Despite their softer tone, however, many experts say the Castros are simply practising realpolitik rather than experiencing a spiritual awakening.
Fidel Castro said in 2006 that he would declare himself a Christian from the standpoint of social vision, rather than from a religious standpoint. He made the statement in an oral autobiography with journalist Ignacio Ramonet, published shortly before illness forced him to hand over power to Raul.
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