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Cuban President Raul Castro and Pope Francis meet in Vatican

By Andrew V. Pestano
Cuban President Raul Castro and Pope Francis meet in Vatican
Pope Francis began his papacy in 2013 after his predecessor, Benedict XVI, stepped down. File Photo by Stefano Spaziari/UPI | License Photo

VATICAN CITY, May 10 (UPI) -- Cuban President Raul Castro thanked Pope Francis for helping improve relations between Cuba and the United States at the Vatican Sunday.

"Bienvenido!" Francis said, welcoming Castro. The communist and Catholic leaders spoke in their native Spanish during their nearly hour-long private meeting.

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Castro had previously praised Francis' work to move for U.S. and Cuban reconciliation.

The last time Castro was in Rome was in 1997 when he was serving as defense minister to then-president Fidel Castro, his brother.

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"I thanked the Pope for what he did," Castro told journalists as he left. "I will resume praying and turn to the Church again if the Pope continues in this vein."

The Catholic Church organized secret meetings in attempts to improve U.S. and Cuban relations.

Castro later praised Francis' "wisdom, modesty and all his other qualities."

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"I read all the speeches of the pope," Castro added.

Francis will make a stop in Cuba in September before his scheduled visit to the United States.

Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi said Castro "laid out to the pope the sentiments of the Cuban people in the wait and preparation for his upcoming visit to the island in September."

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Francis recently announced he will send "missionaries of mercy" to absolve women for having abortions during a Holy Year of Mercy beginning in December.

Abortion will still be considered a sin by the Catholic church that can result in excommunication, but Francis' decision is apparently the first time a pope will ask priests worldwide to forgive women for having abortions.

The pope's announcement follows a series of controversial moves toward tolerance since his election in 2013, including meeting with a transgender man, suggesting that divorced people can take communion and that gay people should not be turned away from the church.

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