Reuters, 20/03 16:11 CET
By Jeff Franks
HAVANA (Reuters) – Father Miguel Angelo Jimenez' congregation is small
and mostly elderly and his church, Our Lady of Carmen in central Havana,
needs repairs to a leaking roof for which there is no money.
As he sits behind a worn desk that looks like it dates back to the
church's opening in 1926, he is under no illusions about the state of
the Roman Catholic Church in Cuba.
"It was in decline (before Cuba's 1959 revolution) and it continues to
decline in many things. The Church really needs to renew itself," he said.
That, in essence, is why Pope Benedict will visit the communist island
on March 26-28 after a three-day stop in Mexico.
The once-powerful Catholic Church in Cuba is hoping the German pontiff
will awaken what Cardinal Jaime Ortega called last week a "a sleeping
faith" and also help build on its budding relationship with the Cuban
Badly weakened in the years after the revolution, the Church wants to
regain some of its lost glory, both in terms of bringing more people
into the fold and expanding its role in shaping Cuban society.
In the past two years, it has served as an interlocutor with the
government, with Ortega brokering a deal to free political prisoners,
convincing President Raul Castro to let a women's dissident group, the
'Ladies in White' continue their weekly protest marches, and creating
more space for the Church to expand its social programs and educational
The rapprochement is in part a case of mutual need, experts say.
The Church wants to be a bigger player, and Castro needs allies as he
undertakes economic reforms that include the slashing of one million
workers from government payrolls.
A partnership with the Church, which is Cuba's largest and most socially
influential institution outside of the government, "encourages stability
and gives the state a certain degree of credibility," said Geoff Thale
at the Washington Office on Latin America, an independent organization
that advocates for human rights.
Castro has said his goal is to strengthen the communist system for a
future without its aging founders.
He also has shown more tolerance towards religion than did his elder
brother, Fidel Castro, who ruled Cuba for 49 years before he fell ill
and Raul succeeded him in February 2008.
"The party should be convinced that beyond the material requirements and
even cultural ones, there exists in our people a diversity of concepts
and ideas about their own spiritual necessities," Raul Castro told a
Communist Party congress last year.
The 1959 revolution brought years of conflict in which many in the
Church sided with opponents of Fidel Castro and he in turn expelled
hundreds of priests and nuns, seized Church property, refused it access
to mass media and forbade religious believers in the Communist Party.
Ortega, now 75, was detained in a work camp for several months in 1966.
In 1962, Pope John XXIII excommunicated Fidel Castro, who later made
religious antipathy official by declaring Cuba atheist in a constitution
adopted in 1976. Christmas as a national holiday was abolished.
Membership in the Catholic Church and other religions plummeted with the
exodus of people leaving Cuba after the revolution, and many of those
who stayed quit practicing their faith openly because of harassment in
the increasingly anti-religious atmosphere.
Church officials say about 60 percent of Cuba's 11.2 million people have
been baptized in the faith, but only about five percent of those
regularly go to mass.
The story of the Church's once-dominant role in Cuba and its precipitous
decline is told by the presence of numerous churches in every nook and
cranny of the island, and the fact that many of them now stand closed
With its baroque altar, intricately tiled pillars and a towering statue
of its namesake atop its dome, Our Lady of Carmen church symbolized the
Church's soaring status in Cuba when it opened in 1926.
But at a recent Sunday mass, it was more a symbol of the Church's
modern-day problems, with half the wooden pews empty and mostly elderly
people in attendance.
"I still love the church, but things have been difficult for a long
time," said 80-year-old retiree Esther, who preferred not to give her
full name as she waited for her family to take her home from mass.
Church-state relations began a slow thaw in the mid-1980s when Fidel
Castro warmed to the leftist "liberation theology" movement inside the
Church in Latin America and Catholic leaders issued a willingness for
dialogue, saying that socialism was not all bad.
In the early 1990s, coinciding with the collapse of the Soviet Union,
Cuba's top ally and benefactor for 30 years, Fidel Castro replaced the
word "atheist" with "secular" in the constitution, eliminated a ban on
religious believers in the Communist party and allowed Caritas, the
Church's social services branch, into Cuba.
In 1994, Ortega was named cardinal, and in 1996 Fidel Castro went to
Rome to invite Pope John Paul II to Cuba. Just before the pope's arrival
in January 1998, Castro reinstated the Christmas holiday.
"May Cuba, with all its magnificent potential, open itself up to the
world, and may the world open itself up to Cuba," Pope John Paul II said
in a well-remembered and still unfulfilled line.
The Church believes another turning point may have come last year when
the government allowed it to take the image of the Virgin of Charity of
El Cobre, Cuba's patron saint, around the country in a pilgrimage to
celebrate the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the doll-like icon
by three fishermen.
In a nationally televised address last week, Ortega said a million
people turned out to see the icon in a massive display of faith.
The cardinal said the showing so impressed Pope Benedict, 84, that he
decided to come to Cuba, despite his advanced age and frail health, to
reawaken that latent faith.
"There was great interest in this pilgrimage because the pope is
committed to reviving the faith in countries that were Christianize
before, but need a new evangelization," Ortega said.
The pope's visit will include a stop in El Cobre, the mountainside town
in eastern Cuba where the icon is enshrined.
Regaining the Church's past glory in Cuba will take work.
Afro-Cuban religions such as Santeria, a legacy of slavery on the
island, are widespread and Protestant churches are estimated to have a
combined membership of as many as 800,000 people.
Before the revolution, Protestant religions such as Baptist, Methodist
and Presbyterian had a strong presence in Cuba due to American influence
on the island and they are said to be growing today, including the
evangelical and Pentecostal churches.
Lazaro Alvarez, pastor of the University Methodist Church in Havana's
Vedado neighbourhood, said outreach programs have fuelled strong growth
the past four years and he now has 2,216 members.
In contrast to lightly attended Catholic masses, "we fill the chapel
with 1,300 people every Sunday and have an overflow room where those who
don't fit inside can watch the service on television monitors," he said.
Still, none of the other religions are as institutionally powerful as
the Catholic Church nor wield its political clout. Within limits, it has
become a forceful voice for economic and political change, particularly
through its publications.
But critics say it has not used its power as much as it could or should
have to push for more rapid and deep change.
"We're seeing a Church that is kowtowing to a regime for no reason at
all. What do the people of Cuba have to show for this? Nothing at all,"
said Daniel Alvarez, a religious studies expert at Florida International
University in Miami.
Alvarez was particularly critical of an incident last week when 13
dissidents occupied a Catholic church in Havana for two days before the
Church called police in to remove them.
"This is an institution that has taken on emperors and kings. I don't
understand why they're trying to accommodate the regime," he said.
Thale said the Church's weakened state and other factors have forced it
to shy away from direct confrontation with the Cuban government in
favour of a more gradual approach.
"My sense of things is the Church decided that the best tactic was to
push for space and change within that," he said. "You can disagree with
the path the Church took, but I think there's a sound argument that it's
the right path," he said.
(Additional reporting by David Adams in Miami; Editing by Kieran Murray)