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Church and state circle warily as faith flourishes.

HAVANA, Cuba -- Faith is thriving in Cuba, a nation identified by a 35-year, Marxist-Leninist revolutionary process.

The faith comes in many forms: mainstream Catholics who generally disagree with the revolutionary government, Afro-Cuban "saints" who carry on the ancient religion of the Yoruba linguistic tribes of Nigeria, and Protestants, many who identify with the revolution.

"Right now, all of the churches in Cuba are growing in leaps and bounds," said the Rev. Raul Suarez, a Baptist who was elected in March along with two other Protestant ministers to the congress, or National Assembly. "We are enjoying a new sense of freedom to express the Christian faith. Also, the difficult situation the country is facing prompts people to seek moral and spiritual recourse through religious practice."

The IV Congress of the Cuban Communist Party opened the doors to greater religious tolerance in October 1991. It drafted a proposal, formalized by the National Assembly as a constitutional reform in 1992, changing the country's character from an "atheist" to a "laity" state. The Communist Party also opened its membership to professed Christians for the first time.

This does not mean that all of the frictions and fissures between the churches and the government have disappeared in a fortnight. Relations are still tense between the government and the Catholic church, according to Father Jorge Machin, the provincial superior of the Cuban Jesuits.

"The mutual mistrust between the government and the Catholic church is difficult to eliminate," Machin said. "There are a lot of counterrevolutionaries in the Catholic church. And the government still treats Catholics cautiously." This tension has historical roots.

"The Protestant churches were always viewed as the churches of Cuba, while the Catholic church was viewed as Spain's church," said Suarez. During the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, who was overthrown in 1959, the Catholic church was viewed as wedded to the rich, the sugar plantation owners, the powerful.

According to Cuban Episcopal Conference documents, some 600 priests who were seen as antagonistic to the revolution were forced to leave the country in 1961. At the time, the government claimed many of them had abetted treasonous, counterrevolutionary practices.

In 1985, Cuban President Fidel Castro told Brazilian Father Frei Betto: "When the conflicts (between the Catholic church and the revolutionary government) arose, they were really class conflicts, because, as I was explaining, the wealthy class had a monopoly on the church; it tried to use it and to lead bishops, priests and ordinary Catholics to take counterrevolutionary positions.

"No problems arose with the Protestant sectors; to the contrary, our relations with them were always good and easy in general. There were no problems, either with animist beliefs or with any other kind of belief. Nor were there any problems with Catholic beliefs; the problems that arose concerned Catholic institutions," Castro insisted.

According to Suarez, however, Christians were "misunderstood" by the communists for a long time. "Christians were never persecuted, per se. But sometimes there was discrimination in jobs, in university careers. Now, though, we are enjoying total religious freedom," he said.

Jose Felipe Carneado, the Communist Party's representative for religious affairs, contributed substantially to improving conditions for dialogue between the churches and the revolutionaries. Carneado died in early April.

Church sources said relations are the best they have ever been. But at the archdiocese of Havana, NCR was told that "orders have been given not to grant interviews." No member of the episcopal conference was willing to officially grant an interview, although a secretary said she wished the Cuban government newspapers would consider publishing the church's point of view.

Eventually, a priest close to the hierarchy who wished to remain anonymous offered his analysis of the situation in Cuba.

"Fundamental rights are not being respected here, like the right to migrate and freedom of expression," the priest said. "This system is not working, and the majority of the people I know do not agree with it. Things won't change as long as Fidel Castro is in power. The Cuban people are lacking everything -- potatoes, rice even. Black market inflation has soared."

The priest had a plump belly. There were three refrigerators and two freezers in the church's storage room. He admitted church representatives have access to well-stocked diplomatic stores.

Suarez, meanwhile, said he tries to see the revolution "through the eyes of Christ." He said he does not idealize the revolution. "I try to evaluate this project. And I can affirm that for the poor people in Cuba, people who before were dependent, excluded, marginalized from culture, education, politics and power, people who were illiterate and unemployed, the revolution radically transformed their lives."

Using a modern-day version of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, Suarez continued. "When I go to the food distribution store, and I am given a couple of onions, this moves me deeply. Because I know everyone is getting two onions. When we have but a few goods, we distribute a little bit among everyone," Suarez said. "Even with the problems we have now, you do not see kids in the street, wearing rags, begging for food or working washing windshields, selling newspapers, shining shoes. Thus, I have no problem participating as a Christian as part of the National Assembly."

Grass-roots Catholics committed to the church of the poor are doubly marginalized in Cuba. Jesuit Machin said the sector of the Latin American Catholic church that made a preferential option for the poor hardly ever prospered in Cuba. The revolution preceded the ground-breaking bishops' conferences at Medellin and Puebla. And the government's mistrust of Catholics in general prevented priests from other parts of the continent who were committed to a liberation view of the faith from being able to take up residence in Cuba.

Still, Catholics inspired by this vision of the faith have joined together in a catacombs organization named after Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero. "These people are held in suspicion by fellow Catholics because they are committed to the church of the poor. And many of their communist friends mistrust them because they are Catholics," Machin explained.

For example, a member of the Romero organization said his priest prohibited him from participating in Mass activities and in the parish council. "The priest didn't want the church to be identified with my positions that incorporate ideas of liberation and my opposition to the United States policy," the lay leader said. "The hierarchy feels that if it identifies at all with the revolution, it is getting involved in politics. But the bishops do not consider it political to speak against the revolution."

As these tensions persist, another powerful force of culture and faith is flourishing, and it is subverting worship in the Catholic church. People of Afro-Cuban heritage are recuperating the ancient religion of the Yoruba linguistic communities of Nigeria.

"An extraordinary number of people participate in this form of worship," Suarez said.

Their ancestors brought to Cuba as slaves to work the sugar plantations, many Afro-Cubans still worship the "intermediary" deities of their homeland, the Orishas. As a form of cultural resistance to Catholicism, Afro-Cubans syncretized their deities with the Catholic saints.

Thousands of Afro-Cubans involved in Santeria, as this religious practice is called, syncretize Yemaya, the Yoruba intermediary deity of universal maternity and the sea, the mother of all life, with Cuba's patron saint, the Virgin of Regla, for example. Every Catholic saint has its Orisha counterpart.

"There was no way the slaves who worked 14 or 18 hours a day could possibly accept the same God of those people who exploited and oppressed them," Suarez observed. "There are incredible values of rebellion, resistance and struggle for cultural and ethnic identity present in the affirmation of this religion that they brought from Africa."

Gilberto Rojas is a priest, a Babalao, of Santeria. "The Catholic church solves problems after death. But we believe people need to solve their problems in this world," said Rojas, who is also an expert an Afro-Cuban culture. "We also believe, though, that one all-powerful God exists, the sole creator of everything. But this God needs angels (Orishas), because the universe is immense."

Rojas said the Catholic church in Cuba is "sustained" by the practitioners of the Santeria faith. "The Catholic church is nothing in Cuba without us," he said. "The so-called pure Catholics in Cuba are a minority." All members of the Yoruba religion are baptized as Catholics, and most attend all of the major Catholic religious festivities.

But Afro-Cubans also hold Santeria ceremonies in their homes, and they sustain colorful altars honoring the Orishas. The ancient culture of Nigeria is vibrantly alive in these religious fests -- songs are sung to each Orisha in Yoruba, with drummers pounding forth the African rhythms. People join joyously and reverently in a throng of dance and worship.
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Author:Wirpsa, Leslie
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Jun 4, 1993
Words:1458
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