Israel and the Jewish people found an unlikely defender in Fidel Castro, the retired dictator of Cuba, on Tuesday,  when he came out strongly against Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's denial of the Holocaust and supported Israel's right to exist.

In a rare interview with Jewish-American reporter Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic, the ailing 84-year-old leader said he sympathized with the Jews who have suffered from repeated persecution over the course of history.

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"The Jews have lived an existence that is much harder than ours," Castro said. "There is nothing that compares to the Holocaust."

Asked by Goldberg if he could relay the message to Ahmadinejad, who has denied the Holocaust and called for Israel to be wiped off the map, he was quoted as saying: "I am saying this so you can communicate it."

Castro also spoke lengthily about his first experience with anti-Semitism as a youth growing up in Catholic Cuba.

"I remember when I was a boy - a long time ago - when I was five or six years old and I lived in the countryside," he said, "and I remember Good Friday. What was the atmosphere a child breathed? `Be quiet, God is dead.' God died every year between Thursday and Saturday of Holy Week, and it made a profound impression on everyone. What happened? They would say, `The Jews killed God.' They blamed the Jews for killing God! Do you realize this?"


He added: "Well, I didn't know what a Jew was. I knew of a bird that was a called a 'Jew,' and so for me the Jews were those birds.  These birds had big noses. I don't even know why they were called that. That's what I remember. This is how ignorant the entire population was."

Castro spoke to Goldberg because he recently wrote a piece about the prospects of Israel launching a strike against Iran. Fearing a regional flare up in the Mideast, the leader called for Israel and the US to back down from Iran over its nuclear program.

"This problem is not going to get resolved, because the Iranians are not going to back down in the face of threats," he said. "That's my opinion."

In 2006 Castro was forced into retirement after 47 years in power due to poor health. Since then the leader famous for his lengthy speeches has kept a relatively low profile. His support of Israel's right to exist and criticism of Iran's Holocaust denial is surprising given his iconic status among the leftist movement in Latin American which has allied itself with the Islamic Republic.

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