Is it necessary for a communist to be an atheist? Have there been exceptions to this rule where a communist country or leader was comfortable with religion?
Since all communist countries persecuted religions .. I am asking it.
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It depends on your definition of communism - AND religion.
Marx, as another answerer noted, officially denounced religion. This was for three distinct reasons:
Organized religion (church) for hundreds of years was either a political power, or co-opted by another power (monarchs) to help pacify the oppressed lower classes.
The official version of what was taught in USSR history classes (not sure how accurate it was historically) was that Christianity was adopted by Rome and later states since that religion taught the lower classes to be passive and accept their poor lot in life by promising heaven later on.
Much of Marxism prides itself on based on rationality and science and materialism (debatably - see next point) . That directly contradicts spiritual angles.
Some people (e.g. Eric S. Raymond - who moonlights as libertarian theoretician when not creating/documenting Open Source movement) argue that communism (at least of Marxist variety) acts as a theological memetic construct itself; and thus any religion is a direct competition to it.
There are things that can legitimately be called communism/communist yet are religion based:
Liberation Theology (aka Christianized Marxism)
Tons of Islamic and Islamist movements are very Marxist in nature (Libya under Qaddafi being a good example of the former).
Many "new agey" type people subscribe to communist-type political notions (up to and including joining communes) and profess some spiritual or religious affinity as well (Wicca, Eastern type religiouns, assorted "New Age" spiritualism.
Some further reading:
Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.
In an instance, an anticapitalist with heavy Islamist leanings quoted this from Karl Marx as the best definition of religion there is. "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature." But he should (of course) not be considered a communist but a mere anticapitalist, as his ideology forms around the relationship between Islam and property - he is, practically, an Islamist who is against property and capitalism.
Although Karl Marx personally viewed religion as a natural result of the current way of society and the state and his materialist examination of religion lead him to his conclusion, that with the triumph of communism will religion wither away (along with the state) it is not necessary for the communists to be atheists.
Everything Karl Marx said is not to be worshiped as words that descended from heavens due to some divine being's mercy - such would be the most anti-Marxist thing to believe. Instead, Karl Marx, as a man, observed his material environment for his deductions and someone else, who is likewise observing their environment, trying to deduce materialist theories from it, may find themselves on the side of both religion and communism. And there would be nothing stopping them from advocating Marxism and Marxist economics - Marxism is not a cult that has strict rules and boundaries. And religion definitely does not contradict with Marxism.
What contradicts with Marxism, however, is the patriarchal and bureaucratic structure that is behind religion. Lenin described secularism as the ultimate status of the seperation of the religion and the state, i.e state-atheism, complete withdrawal of the state from religious affairs. While it is true that he also said atheism is inseperable from Marxism, the whole deal is behind understanding this complex phrase: Regardless of one's own religion, they must act as if they were atheist; just as they are free from the constraints of their nationality and race as they are Marxists, so shall they be free from the constraints of religion and act not by the guidance of religion but by that of a communist ideology. This means, on the grounds where religion and Marxism contradict each other, reconciliation is impossible: The church bureaucracy needs to be abolished.
As for the actually existing religious communists; I believe you may find them especially among the Palestinian and Jewish comrades.
I would doubt it, communism is mainly about economics and religion, is well about religion.
What's probably more important is that materialism as an on-going philosophical point of view, in the modern era, is associated with Europe; there are other materialist philosophies (for example the Indian tradition categorifies them as astika, but they don't have the purchase on the imagination as contemporary atheism does in all it's various modalities.
A good counter-question, to help understand the meaning of a question such as how communism intersects with athiesm, is to also ask (given that communism is often set against capitalism), how does capitalism intersects with athiesm; it's a question, I suppose of intersectionality.
Marx had some pretty healthy insights on the working class. His oposition to capitalism was of wise insight.
He was of course against religion as religion is of course of man and not of GOD therefore quite dysfunctional in many ways and of course to this day separates rather than unites!
I believe that if we take away religion the people are left with spirituality and spiritual growth. I don't believe JESUS said anything about the positives of religion in fact was nor for the church nor Moses within the 10 Commandments! If I'm wrong then please correct me and show me where to go for references? Not saying Marx's theories may not needed some ironing out as most all things do! I've not ever read anything on Marx and just took for granted that he was evil and of the devil. Of course this was based on the educational system of a capitalist government and society I've been brought up in. Of course any capitalist would be highly offended by anything Marx theorized and totally close off to anything that he had to say without themselves looking into it as "Marx is a devil".
Check this out on YouTube. Its only about 9 1/2min.yet very interesting and informative. Karl Marx political views. Just type that in on www.youtube.com and watch before responding to my comment please!