Castro jokes Pope inspires him to join church again
President Raúl Castro yesterday thanked Pope Francis for the Vatican's role in the secret negotiations between Cuba and the US last year, quipping he might be moved to return to the bosom of the Church himself - despite being a communist.
It was a weekend of developments for the Castro clan and for Cuba. The Vatican audience came one day after Mariela Castro, the president's daughter, sponsored the first mass blessing for gay couples in Havana.
While gay marriage remains off limits in Cuba, the community has made strides in recent years towards equality with Ms Castro, who heads the Center for Sex Education, leading the way. Last year the national assembly passed a law barring discrimination based on gender identity. Ms Castro voted against the law's passage because it failed to offer protection to transgender people.
Ms Castro did not attend Saturday's event, at which visiting protestant ministers from the US and Canada offered religious blessings to around a dozen gay couples as they held hands and embraced, but she earlier led a gay rights march of about a 1,000 people through the streets of the capital.
In Rome, meanwhile, Mr Castro signalled his continuing commitment to rapprochement with the US. After meeting the Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, Mr Castro said he was hopeful that the US Senate would move "soon" to complete the removal of Cuba from a list of nations supporting terror. But he was particularly concerned to praise Pope Francis, who is a Jesuit and a native of Argentina, the homeland of Che Guevara, the Cuban icon who with Fidel Castro, Raúl's elder brother, led the 1959 revolution in Cuba.
"I told the Prime Minister 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," he said.
He said he left the meeting with the Pope "really impressed by his wisdom and modesty". He went on to say that "even I am a Jesuit in a certain sense", as he was taught by Jesuits.
The Pope is due to visit Cuba in September on his way to the US. After years of repressing religion, Fidel Castro began easing restrictions in the early 1990s. (Independent News Service)