MIAMI (Christian Examiner) – Fidel Castro, who governed Cuba with an iron hand for nearly six decades, died Nov. 25 at age 90, leaving behind an uncertain future for Cuba and lingering questions for Christian churches on the island.
Although Cuban-Americans, most of them Roman Catholic, had expressed hope freedom would come to Cuba after Fidel died, Rual Castro – Fidel's brother who took control of the government in 2008 after the aging dictator suffered several health crises – said on state television the policies set in place by Fidel would continue.
That means there will remain a fairly tight grip on religion, in spite of the fact relations with the Catholic Church in Rome have warmed since the Soviet Union collapsed and Cuba was jettisoned as a satellite state in 1992. With the relationship went billions of dollars in Russian subsidies, leaving Castro looking elsewhere for funds to aid the poor – which included virtually everyone on the island.
Now, Catholics and evangelical Christians still remain under the watchful eye of the government, which still resists foreign influence.
Fidel Castro, like most communists, declared his allegiance to atheism as part of his national platform, in spite of the fact that he was taught by Jesuit priests as a boy and remained familiar with the Bible. When asked about religion by outsiders, he frequently reinterpreted Jesus's teachings to support communist ideals.
In the 1985 book, Fidel y la Religión, by Brazilian Priest Frei Betto, who had interviewed Castro extensively in the early 1980s, Castro said his departure from the church was mostly political. He saw conservative Catholicism – and its stated policy of anti-communism – as a real threat to his revolutionary state. He also knew he wouldn't earn the support of other communist states, such as Vietnam, Laos and China, if he did not abandoned the church.
Though no priest is recorded as having been executed during his reign, he did expel virtually every Catholic priest from the island. Only 200 remained after 1961.
For evangelicals, however, times were much harder. Castro was particularly brutal for those who held "American free church" ideas about Christianity. House churches were repeatedly infiltrated by government informers and an unknown number of evangelical Christian leaders were imprisoned and executed.
In 1998, Pope John Paul II surprised the world by seeking a visit to the island. According to papal biographer George Weigel, Castro warmly accepted the pope but still spent most of his time railing the United States. On the U.S.-led embargo of Cuba, in place since the Kennedy administration, Castro and John Paul II agreed it should be lifted.
Pope Benedict visited Cuba in 2012. Rumors surfaced then, as well, that Fidel wanted to seek a return to the church, but he did not. La Repubblica, an official newspaper, even quoted Castro's daughter Alina, who said her father "has come closer to religion: he has rediscovered Jesus at the end of his life."
"It doesn't surprise me because dad was raised by Jesuits," she reportedly said.
As his health began to fail, he also spoke more openly about religion and even said the findings of Darwinian evolution – a key doctrine underpinning materialistic atheism – did not necessarily negate the existence of God or the doctrine of His creation of the world.
However, when Pope Francis visited Cuba after his election to the papacy, and Fidel and Francis met for 45 minutes, there was again no public announcement of Castro's return to the church.
Pope Francis sent a short telegram to Raul Castro following the dictator's death. In it, he expressed "sorrow" at the death of one of the most controversial figures of the 20th century.
"Upon receiving the sad news of the death of your dear brother, His Excellency Mister Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz, former president of the State Council and of the Government of the Republic of Cuba, I express my sentiments of sorrow to Your Excellency and other family members of the deceased dignitary, as well as to the people of this beloved nation," the telegram said.
"At the same time, I offer prayers to the Lord for his rest and I trust the whole Cuban people to the maternal intercession of our Lady of the Charity of El Cobre, patroness of this country."
Archbishop of Miami Thomas Wenski, who leads most of the Cuban-American Catholic community in South Florida also issued a statement calling for the aid of "our Lady of Charity." He was, however, less charitable to Castro, asking for the saint's help in helping Cuba achieve reconciliation with the world, freedom and justice.
"In the Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes, we read: '[B]oth the just and the wicked God will judge, since a time is set for every affair and for every work' (Ecclesiastes 3:17). Fidel Castro has died. Now he awaits the judgment of God who is merciful but also just. His death provokes many emotions – both in and outside the island," Wenski said.
Among Protestants, few commented on the death of the Cuban dictator. However, Franklin Graham, president of Samaritan's Purse, said via social media that Fideal was "loved by few, hated by millions."
Castro's communist revolution, he said, "deposed a dictator, but ushered in a socialist police state that drove the entire Cuban nation into complete poverty and oppression."
In spiritual terms, he said, there is a lesson in Castro's life.
"Chinese President Xi Jinping made a statement that caught my eye. He said, 'Comrade Castro will live forever.' That is true," Graham said.
"All of us have a soul that is going to live forever in one of two places—Heaven or Hell. What we do here on earth determines where we will spend eternity. The only way to Heaven is by accepting God's plan for our salvation—believing in His Son Jesus Christ and following Him as Lord. Jesus said, 'I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.' (John 14:6). Do you know where you will spend eternity?"
"Fidel Castro's death should be a reminder to pray for freedom, including religious freedom, for the long-oppressed Cuban people," Moore said.