Magazine article The Christian Century

Religious Reawakening: Stirrings in Cuba

Magazine article The Christian Century

Religious Reawakening: Stirrings in Cuba

Article excerpt

In certain important respects, Cuba is experiencing a religious reawakening. After more than 35 years of official state atheism, public religious practice had almost disappeared; outwardly, Cuban society had become almost completely secularized. Now a religious rebirth is readily discernible, though it is still quite limited in relation to the island's total population of more than 11 million, half of whom are under 35 and thus younger than the revolution.

Both the Catholic Church and the various Protestant churches show growth in Cuba - as does Santeria, a mixture of traditional Christianity with aspects of African religions. The increase in the number of people, especially young people, participating in liturgical functions may be prompted by a search for new values in the face of the collapse of "real socialism"; or it may be a result of the more conciliatory attitude toward religion assumed by the Communist Party and the government since the publication of the bestselling book Fidel y la Religion by the Council of State in Havana in 1985.

Transcribed by Brazilian priest Frei Betto, O.P., the book condenses more than 23 hours of taped conversations between Fidel Castro and the author. During their conversation dated May 24, 1985, Castro accepts responsibility for the exclusion of "believers" from Communist Party membership: He insists, however, that he wasn't motivated by antireligious ideas: "What we were demanding was complete adherence to Marmism-Leninism.... It was assumed that anybody who joined the party would accept the party's policy and doctrine in all aspects." He disputes Betto's characterization of the party as confessional in nature: "It can't be confessional, for it might tend to resemble or become, as you say, a sort of religion; we really don't think that people can practice nonbelief as a philosophy, or atheism as a religion."

For the next five years party theorists and Christians explored the possible bases for a greater rapprochement, and in November 1991 the party resolved to admit "believers" to its ranks. In July 1992 the constitution was amended to remove the definition of Cuba as a state based upon Marxist-Leninist philosophical materialism. Also, article 42 of the constitution was revised to prohibit discrimination against persons on the basis of their religious beliefs. Believers were thus promoted to full citizenship and assured of equal protection under the law.

The change implied in these amendments was far-reaching indeed. Just how far-reaching can be grasped from reading a recent pamphlet about Cuba's religious situation. Titled "With Open Heart" and written by Pastor Clara Rodes Gonzalez, the first woman president of the Baptist Society of Cuba, the booklet describes the atmosphere of hostility to religion which the government promoted after the 1959 revolution: "The Committees for Defense of the Revolution said: 'It is not good for your children to go to church.' Religious beliefs were viewed as reactionary, backward, ignorant, superstitious.... We suffered discrimination in the schools and at work ... the decade of the '60s was turbulent and filled with tears ... and many chose to hide their faith."

The government's thorough and systematic campaign promoting atheism, coupled with the ongoing exodus of Christians from the island, had the effect of discouraging any open expression of religious belief. Many parents were reluctant to burden their children with the difficulties inherent in being a baptized Christian. The Catholic Archdiocese of Havana reported only 7,000 baptisms in 1971. But in 1989 the number of baptisms increased to 27,609, and in 1991, to 33,569.

Regular attendance at Sunday services is estimated at about 250,000 for the entire island, with the churchgoers about evenly distributed between Catholics and Protestants. These figures rise during Holy Week and other traditional religious festivals. Cuba now has fewer Catholic priests per inhabitant than any other Latin America country. …

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