Cuba Pardons Thousands of Prisoners Ahead of Pope Francis Visit

Pope Francis Castro Cuba Prisoners
Cuban President Raul Castro meets Pope Francis during a private audience at the Vatican May 10. Reuters/Gregorio Borgia

The Cuban government pardoned thousands of prisoners on Friday in a goodwill gesture before Pope Francis's arrival for a visit to the communist country, according to government newspaper Granma.

The government is to release 3,522 prisoners, the largest number freed since 1959, when former president Fidel Castro launched an armed revolution against the U.S.-backed government of then-President Fulgencio Batista. The timing of the prisoners' release was not disclosed.

"On the occasion of the visit by His Holiness Pope Francis, the Council of State of the Republic of Cuba [the highest governmental body]...agreed to pardon 3,522 prisoners, chosen due to the nature of the acts for which they were jailed, their behavior in prison, the time of punishment and health concerns," the government newspaper said, according to the AFP news agency.

Pope Francis, 78, is to spend three days on his visit to Cuba and may meet with Castro if his health permits. That will be decided at the last moment, three senior Vatican officials told Bloomberg.

The Catholic leader will also meet the current Cuban president and brother of Fidel, Raul Castro, at Havana's Palace of the Revolution on September 20. The pair previously met during Castro's visit to the Vatican in May to discuss the Cuban-U.S. relationship.

The pontiff helped to mediate the recent rapprochement between Havana and the U.S. and will visit Washington, New York and Philadelphia after his visit to the communist island, which takes place between September 19 and 22.

Francis's visit will be the third by a pope to the country. Previous visits have proved productive for the Catholic Church. Fidel Castro, now 89, reinstated Christmas following a 1998 visit by Pope John Paul II. Castro had declared the country atheist following the revolution and scrapped December 25 as a public holiday in 1969 so that workers could focus on the sugar harvest.

Francis, who has sought to change the image of the Vatican, announced last week that the Holy See would accept two refugee families and called on Catholic institutions across Europe to follow suit.

"Faced with the tragedy of tens of thousands of refugees who are fleeing death by war and by hunger, and who are on a path toward a hope for life, the Gospel calls us to be neighbors to the smallest and most abandoned, to give them concrete hope," the pope said, addressing a crowd of thousands of people at St. Peter's Square.

But offering words of hope and encouragement are not enough, he added. "May every parish, every religious community, every monastery, every sanctuary in Europe host a family, starting with my diocese of Rome."