Castro thanks Pope Francis for brokering thaw between Cuba and US News

“Bienvenido!” said Francis in his native Spanish as he welcomed Castro to his studio near the Vatican’s public audience hall for private talks that lasted nearly an hour. After leaving the Vatican, Castro, the brother of Fidel, the revolutionary leader who brought the Communists to power in Cuba, gushed with praise for Francis.

“If the pope keeps going the way he’s going, I’ll come back to the Catholic church”,- Castro said at a news conference at the office of the Italian prime minister, Matteo Renzi, whom he met after the Vatican talks.

Castro thanks Pope Francis for brokering thaw between Cuba and US News

“When the pope goes to Cuba in September, I promise to go to all his masses, and with satisfaction”,- he added.

It was a startling assertion for the leader of a communist country, where crackdowns on dissidents in the past had drawn sharp Vatican criticism.

“I am from the Cuban Communist party, that doesn’t allow [religious] believers, but now we are allowing it, it’s an important step”,- Castro said.

Speaking about Francis, the Cuban president said he had been very impressed by his wisdom, his modesty, and all his virtues that we know he has.

Francis played a key role in secret negotiations between the US and Cuba, which led to the surprise announcement in December that the two countries would seek to restore diplomatic ties after more than 50 years of tensions.

“Raul Castro thanked the pope for his mediation between Cuba and the United States”,- Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman, said of the exchange, which also focused on the pontiff’s forthcoming visit to Cuba.

Castro gave Francis an artwork of a cross made up of relics from wrecked barges depicting a migrant in prayer, and a medal of Havana Cathedral. The pope presented a copy of his Apostolic Exhortation – a document which outlines his views on important issues – and a medallion.

Castro thanks Pope Francis for brokering thaw between Cuba and US News

Castro’s Vatican visit, announced only on Tuesday, follows a visit to Russia, where the Cuban leader attended a grandiose second world war victory parade on Saturday. The Vatican announced last month that Pope Francis would visit Cuba in September, becoming only the third pontiff to do so after John Paul II in 1998 and Benedict XVI in 2012.

The Catholic church has consistently backed calls for the lifting of the US trade embargo against Cuba, while staunchly supporting Cuban Catholics and pressuring Havana to release political prisoners, many of whom are Catholic activists. Francis will go on from Cuba to the US for a meeting with President Barack Obama.

Castro told reporters: “We are trying to carry forward improvements of our political, social and cultural system. But it’s very difficult to do it without causing shocks, without leaving some in the street”.