Pope Meets Fidel Castro After Mass In Havana

Pope Francis met with Cuba’s former leader, Fidel Castro, on Sunday after warning believers against the dangers of ideology in a mass which drew thousands to Havana’s Revolution Square.

The meeting between Argentine-born Pope Francis, 78, who many believe is revolutionizing the church, and Castro, 89, communist icon of the 20th century, was informal and lasted between 30 and 40 minutes.

The two men exchanged gifts, including books and CDs, in a conversation that was described by Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi as “very relaxed, fraternal and friendly.” Castro and Francis met in Fidel’s home, surrounded by his children and grand-children.

During his Sunday service, Pope Francis addressed thousands of people, among whom were Argentinian President Cristina Kirchner and Cuban President Raul Castro.

Pope Francis arrived in Cuba on Saturday and spoke about the recent U.S.-Cuban reconciliation process, in which he played an important role. The two countries re-opened their embassies in August this year, after more than half a century of cold relationships.

The Huffington Post and other news outlets reported that dissidents were kept away from attending the mass.

Since his brother, Raul, took over Cuba’s presidency in 2008, Fidel’s public appearances have been rare, leading to much speculation around his health and whereabouts. His last public appearance, in July, 2015, was at a cheese summit.

It’s not the first time Fidel Castro is meeting leaders of the Catholic Church. In 1998 and in 2012, he met with Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI when they visited the island.

Lombardi reported the meeting between Castro and Francis was conversational, unlike the 2012 encounter, when Fidel was reportedly pressing the German pope with questions. During Fidel’s presidency, Cuba became one of the least religious countries, with fewer than 10 percent of the population being practicing Catholics.

On his 89th birthday last month, Fidel published a column in a newspaper calling on the U.S. to pay Cuba the “numerous millions of dollars” owed to the country for damages caused by the decades-long embargo. The warming up of relationships between the two countries after 54 years is Raul Castro’s main achievement, and is hoped to boost economic reform in Cuba.

On the day he met Pope Francis, Castro was celebrated in an original way in Italy, where “land-artist” Dario Gambarin created a 130-meter wide portrait in a field, with a tractor, in homage to the former Cuban leader.

[Photo by Joe Raedle / Getty Images]