Patriarch of Moscow Expresses “Respect and Gratitude” For Fidel Castro

The website of the Russian Orthodox Church carries a letter from Patriarch Kirill of Moscow to Raul Castro:

Comandante Fidel was one of the most famous and outstanding state leaders of today. He gained international authority and became a legend already in his lifetime. Being flesh of the flesh of the Cuban people, he devoted all his power to make his homeland truly independent and occupy a worthy place in the world family of nations.

In the Russian Orthodox Church the name of Fidel Castro is always pronounced with respect and gratitude. With Comandante’s personal participation, a church dedicated to the Kazan Icon of the Mother of God has been erected in Havana, and Fidel, in his own expression, was ‘the commissar of the construction’.

The letter has also been reported by the pro-Kremlin Interfax news agency, which adds some background:

When he was young, the comandante was keen on the ideas of revolution and socialism, but he stood for cooperation with believers in struggle for the fair society and he once said that “there are ten thousand times more coincidences between Christianity and Communism than between Christianity and Capitalism,” and “a martyr for a religious idea” is made “of the same material as the revolutionary hero.”

Those pro-religion quotes appear to have been sourced from conversations between Castro and the liberation theologian Frei Betto in 1985, more recently published in English as Fidel and Religion. This account of course glosses over historic human rights abuses under Fidel Castro – including religious persecution – and it also ignores a current upsurge in religious oppression under his brother’s rule.

Fidel Castro wrote a short article praising the Russian Orthodox Church in 2008, which can be read in English here. Castro recalled that

…After the demise of the USSR, this church was not an ally of imperialism. That’s why in 2004, when His Eminence Vladimir Mijailovich Gundiaev, Kiril Metropolitan of Smolensk and Kaliningrad visited our country, I suggested building a Cathedral of the Russian Orthodox Church in the capital of Cuba as a monument to Cuban-Russian friendship.

Gundiaev (var. Vladimir Gundjaev) is of course now that very same Patriarch Kirill who has sent condolences to his brother. Castro continued:

Tomorrow, Thursday, he [Gundiaev] will be in Venezuela talking with President Chavez. Both draw inspiration from identical ethical principles derived from the preaching of Jesus Christ according to the Gospels, a religious belief they both share. After that, he will be visiting Ecuador to talk with [Rafael] Correa, a political leader who was trained in the Liberation Theology.

…There is no reason to make the least concession to Yankee imperialism. I am under the impression that His Eminence feels the same way.

The column was the subject of caustic commentary by Christopher Hitchens, who observed that

…Fidel Castro has devoted the last 50 years to two causes: first, his own enshrinement as an immortal icon, and second, the unbending allegiance of Cuba to the Moscow line. Now, black-cowled Orthodox “metropolitans” line up to shake his hand… The ideology of Moscow doesn’t much matter as long as it is anti-American, and the Russian Orthodox Church has been Putin’s most devoted and reliable ally in his re-creation of an old-style Russian imperialism.

… Putin and Medvedev have made it clear that they want to reinstate Cuba’s role in the hemisphere, if only as a bore and nuisance for as long as its military dictatorship can be made to last. Castro’s apparent deathbed conversion to a religion with no Cuban adherents is the seal on this gruesome pact.

Talk of the “deathbed” proved to be premature, although it turned out that Castro’s ally in Venezuela was not long for this world. I noted Kirill’s similarly effusive reaction to Chavez’s death at the time.

It should be remembered that in 2007 Time magazine described the ROC as Putin’s “main ideological arm and a vital foreign policy instrument”.