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Fidel Castro, excommunicated in 1962, meets with Pope Benedict

Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro, who once outlawed religion, met with Pope Benedict XVI today. Benedict's visit is part of a new Catholic strategy in a changing Cuba.

By Staff writer, Girish GuptaCorrespondent / March 28, 2012

Pope Benedict XVI meets former Cuban leader Fidel Castro in Havana on March 28.

Alex Castro/Reuters

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Mexico City and Havana

When the late pope John Paul II met with Fidel Castro in Cuba in 1998, the church had high hopes it could help bring fast political change to the island, as his visit had to his native Poland.

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That never happened. Poland is a far more Catholic country than Cuba, which was once officially atheist. Only half of Cubans identify as Catholic today, according to Pew, and fewer than 10 percent actually practice.

Nearly 15 years later, as Pope Benedict XVI wraps up a three-day trip to the island, the church is “wiser about the limits of its own ability to catalyze rapid change in Cuba,” says William LeoGrande, a Cuba expert at American University.

Instead, he says, the trip – including the visit with Fidel Castro – simply reinforces the strategy the Cuban church has been pursuing: A careful relationship with the government that pushes for more openness and human rights without veering into overt opposition. And while the visit with Fidel Castro lends the former head of state, and his brother and successor Raul Castro, an air of legitimacy, it also underscores how much more of a voice the church has today.

“[The visit with Fidel Castro] is more of a courtesy than it is anything else,” Mr. LeoGrande says. “Fidel really has been out of the decision making process in any formal way for almost six years now.” In that time, he says, "the church has [developed] much more of a political and social role."

In a public Mass today, the pope denounced religious intolerance in general and later specifically urged more public space for the Cuban Catholic Church. "It must be said with joy that in Cuba steps have been taken to enable the church to carry out her essential mission of expressing her faith openly and publicly," he said. "Nonetheless this must continue forward" for the good of Cuban society.

The pope's visit, his first to Spanish-speaking Latin America, started in Mexico. He arrived in Cuba on Monday to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Cuba's patron saint, Our lady of Charity el Cobre.

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