Faithful Stir in Castro's Cuba as Papal Visit Nears

In the months before pope's January visit, hope is growing in Cuba that social change is just around the corner.

As words of praise echo inside, Calia Alvarez stands outside the church in the hot tropical sun describing how discovering religion saved her from a life of solitude and empty materialism.

"At about 15, I started feeling so alone, even when I was with my family. But getting into the church helped me draw closer to others," says the young musician. "Young people are very divided about the value of religion. Some of them are so busy in their quest for material things that they don't have time for any church," she adds. "But religion is what got me beyond that empty focus."

Ms. Alvarez's spiritual awakening no doubt echoes the religious experience of millions of other young people. What makes her story stand out is that it occurred in Cuba, where for decades religion was not only discouraged, but repressed. In the months before Pope John Paul II visits in January, religious faith is growing again on the island ruled for 39 years by communist dictator Fidel Castro.

"Since the fall of the socialist camp, we have witnessed an important growth of religion and in all the religious tendencies that had roots in Cuba" before the revolution, says Ral Surez, a Baptist minister and member of Cuba's National Assembly. The extraordinary growth in religion of the early '90s has tapered off, says Mr. Surez, but the reasons for it remain the same: a search for answers in an economically difficult moment for the country; less fear of openly practicing religion; and a realization that Cuba's leaders no longer view religion as "irregular."

In some ways, the growth in interest in religion parallels what is taking place elsewhere in Latin America, where evangelical Protestant churches are booming. Interest is also strong in Santeria, an Afro-Cuban religion, reflecting the tenacity of non-Christian religions in Brazil and other cultures.

But in many other ways Cuba is a case apart. Anyone under 40 here grew up in a closed society where political ideology had all the answers. Religion was not banned. But in a regime where the Communist Party controls everything from job placement to housing, religion was high risk.

Not until 1991 did the party open its ranks to religious "believers." On June 29, the Roman Catholic church was allowed to hold its first outdoor mass in 37 years. Churches are generally prohibited from holding services outside their walls, access to mass communication is outlawed, and some faiths remain banned.

Religion here received a huge boost when Mr. Castro visited the Vatican last year. And now with the pope set to make a first-ever visit to Cuba, fresh signs of religious openings are emerging.

The Catholic Church is being allowed to carry out an evangelization campaign with the goal of visiting every home in Cuba before the pope arrives. The religious meeting Alvarez attended recently in Havana's Jess de Miramar Catholic Church drew hundreds of youths as part of an effort to prepare for the visit.

The pope's visit is such a focus of anticipation for Cubans hoping for dramatic change that both church and government officials are playing down its impact.

Since the loss of the Soviet Union, the Cuban government has been working to establish Cuba as a "normal" member of the international community. It sees the visit as a way to help accomplish this. "The Catholics will have an opportunity to see the pope ... but basically he comes and big deal," says Carlos Fernandez de Cossio, director of the North America section of the Cuban Foreign Ministry.

The government will welcome any mention the pope makes opposing the United States embargo on Cuba. It is aware of the pope's support of the Polish Solidarity movement in the 1980s. But it would likely smile on any repeat of references to failing values he made last spring in Eastern Europe, a region Havana holds up as the "disaster" awaiting a socialist country's transition to capitalism.

Church officials insist the visit is pastoral, not political. Some Catholic priests say the visit could prove so cathartic for long-frustrated believers that the huge outdoor masses being planned could boil over into antigovernment protests.

That is not the church hierarchy's view. "If there is an expectation of political change [as a result of the visit], there will be disappointment," says Jse Flix Prez, executive secretary of the Cuban Conference of Catholic Bishops. "The pope is coming for people looking for change in their lives, for a change of the person," he says, adding, "Then as people change, society too can change."

That's not exactly the way some of the faithful at a recent mass at Havana's Merced Church see the visit. "We've seen in the past that when [the pope] went to other countries, things improved," says Rafael Concepcin. "People here want the same."

The discrepancy between what people want from the church and what it offers could prove to be the Achilles' heel of Cuba's religious renaissance, some experts say. "A majority of Cuban believers consider the church too conservative in its defense and promotion of social change," says Enrique Lpez, a professor of religion at the University of Havana and an active Catholic.

Despite such yearnings, the pope will not say anything during his visit "that could prejudice the church's action here," Professor Lpez predicts. The church is looking to win a wider "working space" from the visit, he says. He also sees dovetailing interests of church and government in criticizing market reforms in Latin America and curtailing fast-growing evangelical religions. But the church is "not in any way interested in any upheaval," he says.

Cuba's Communist Party is also keenly interested in avoiding abrupt change. Yet whereas Cuba's regime shows some unease over what the ensuing months might bring, the church is operating on a different sense of time. As one Catholic says a priest recently told him, "When Fidel is gone, and the revolution is gone, the church will [still] be."

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