Pope Francis sent his condolences following the death of infamous atheist and former Cuban President Fidel Castro Saturday.
“I express to you my sentiments of grief,” said Francis in a message to Castro’s brother, President Raul Castro. He noted that he grieved over the “sad news” and would pray for the former dictator.
Castro died Friday night at the age of 90. He was baptized Catholic and educated by the same Jesuit order to which Francis belongs. Despite his religious upbringing, Castro was a vocal atheist and declared Cuba an atheist state when he rose to power in 1959. He suppressed the Catholic church during his reign, sending priests to re-education camps and restricting the celebration of holidays. Castro was reportedly excommunicated under an anti-Communist decree by Pope Pius XII in 1962
The Catholic church lived on in Cuba, despite the Castro regime’s best efforts to destroy it. While only ten percent of Cubans are practicing Catholics, half identify as such. The Vatican intentionally maintained relations with Cuba throughout the Castro era, despite its generally anti-Communist policy. Local Catholic charities provided relief work in Cuba, particularly after Castro lessened restrictions on religion after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict and Pope Francis all visited the island nation in years following the changes.
Francis, like Castro, is a critic of unregulated capitalism. He is believed to have played a major role in the cessation of the decades-long U.S. embargo on Cuba.
“I will resume praying and turn to the church again if the pope continues in this vein,” said Raul Castro while visiting Rome in May, 2015. “I mean what I say.”