Pope Benedict XVI Goes to Cuba; Thousands Wait

Growing Role of the Church in Cuba

His Holiness will bring a golden flower for the Caridad de Cobre to mark the 400th anniversary of the petite statuette's discovery by three fishermen in a Cuban bay, and the decree of venerability of 19th century educator and independence advocate Father Felix Varela, an important step toward his sainthood.

"Pope John Paul II's visit was the culmination of a period in which discrimination against people of faith ended, church membership grew, and religious expression became an accepted part of Cuban life," Geoff Thale, program director at the Washington Office on Latin America, said.

"Pope Benedict's visit marks a period in which the churches, particularly the Catholic Church, have become established actors in Cuban society. The churches have gained the social weight to intercede with, and dialogue with, the government about political prisoners, tolerance of dissent, and other issues," he said.

A dramatic improvement in the relationship between the state and largest independent organization in the land began two years ago when the church brokered the release of 130 political prisoners and periodic meetings got underway between Castro, Cardinal Jaime Ortega and the Archbishop of Santiago, Dionisio García, the head of the Catholic Bishops Conference.

The church has since opened cultural centers that double as classrooms and been given unprecedented, though still limited, access to state-run media. Religious processions in Cuba's streets, once banned, are now a common occurrence.

Castro has praised the church and condemned religious discrimination in just about every major speech over the last two years. Cardinal Ortega has praised Castro's efforts to reform the Soviet-style system.

"Benedict will arrive in a country in the process of transformation… begun precisely after a change of head of state and evidence of the exhaustion of the real, paternalist socialism… that John Paul II knew so well," Ortega's top aid and spokesman Orlando Marquez wrote in the Bishop Conference's web page.

"Relations between the church and government in Cuba today are at a qualitatively superior level than 14 years ago… There is a dialogue between different parties that has as its focus the common good of Cuban society as a whole."

An estimated 60 percent of Cuba's 11.2 million residents are baptized, but less than 500,000 systematically practice the faith, similar to the Protestant denominations.

Millions of Cubans are registered as Catholics but are practitioners of the syncretic, home-based Afro-Cuban religions that combine Catholic images with African gods and customs, best known as Santeria, and in which the Caridad de Cobre represents the Orisha (goddess) of love, money and happiness, Ochum.

"Syncretism exists when it comes to religion and in particular African religions and the Church through images, most notably the Virgin of Charity," the Rev. Jorge Palma, curator of the Basilica that houses the Caridad de Cobre, said earlier this year.

"Few Catholics regularly attend mass. To be Catholic in Cuba it is enough to be baptized and not join another religion," he said. "Cubans are idiosyncratic. There are few pure Catholics, pure Protestants, we are a small group."

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