Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich is defending his remarks following the death of Nelson Mandela after critics attacked his social media comments praising Mandela as “one of the greatest leaders of our lifetime.

Gingrich issued a statement Saturday defending his comments and challenging his critics to employ empathy regarding the life and politics of the former South African president:

“Some of the people who are most opposed to oppression from Washington attack Mandela when he was opposed to oppression in his own country. After years of preaching non-violence, using the political system, making his case as a defendant in court, Mandela resorted to violence against a government that was ruthless and violent in its suppression of free speech,” he wrote.

Gingrich even compared Mandela to the Founding Fathers of America and other figures related to the Revolutionary War.

Appearing on CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday Gingrich said he “was very surprised” by all the backlash over his Mandela comments – stating that his wife had also received very intense feedback regarding the remarks.

 “Gingrich: Ironically, most of the things that people complained about occurred during the 27 years he was in prison.”

Gingrich has been a supporter of Nelson Mandela for decades – at one point calling on former President Ronald Reagan to impose sanctions against the apartheid regime – a system of racial segregation in South Africaand support the release of Nelson Mandela from prison. His call was realized as the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986 – with apartheid officially ending and Mandela’s long awaited release from prison 4 years later.

Gingrich wasn’t the lone conservative to receive heated backlash for positive comments regarding the life and death of Mandela. Texas Senator Ted Cruz also faced much criticism this week after posting a respectful tribute on social media.