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RELIGION

Cuba's New Tolerance

A massive Protestant rally, on the heels of Pope John Paul's 1998 visit, may signal a relaxing of restrictions in the island nation.

June 26, 1999|MARGARET RAMIREZ and ALEX GARCIA | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

With impassioned chants of "Cristo Vive!"--Christ Lives!--a crowd of Cuban Protestants estimated by officials at more than 100,000 held a historic open-air celebration at Revolution Square in Havana on Sunday in the most recent sign of the Communist government's increasing tolerance of religion.

The rally, attended by President Fidel Castro and other government leaders, was held in the same place where an estimated 500,000 people gathered in January 1998 for a Catholic Mass celebrated by Pope John Paul II. The Cuban Evangelical Celebration at the Plaza of the Revolution was billed by organizers as the largest Protestant event of its kind ever held in a Caribbean nation.

Church leaders gathered at Sunday's rally said the celebration signaled a religious reinvigoration on the island nation that is reaching beyond Catholicism into Cuba's other faith communities, including Pentecostals, Jews and followers of the Afro-Cuban religion known as Santeria.

"After many years of restrictions, we've finally had the opportunity to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the open, in the plazas," said the Rev. Hector Hunter, general superintendent of the Assemblies of God in Cuba.

The event was jointly organized by Cuba's 49 Protestant denominations and culminated a monthlong evangelical celebration of outdoor meetings in plazas and stadiums across the island. In sights unseen since the 1959 revolution, evangelists handed out Bibles as they visited Cuban homes and Sunday's rally was broadcast live on state-run television.

As the economic situation has worsened in Cuba, religious scholars say that there has been an increased turning to faith as a source of comfort and explanation for suffering. In a 1994 poll conducted by CID-Gallup of Costa Rica, 20% of Cubans said they had attended church in the past month.

All religions have experienced growth and new churches have sprung up. Most notable is the Assemblies of God, which in the last 10 years has grown from 89 churches to more than 2,000.

Even so, restrictions on religious freedom remain and Cuba remains one of the most secular nations in Latin America. Though religious liberty has become more visible in the past year, evangelical Christians say that Catholics have been the main beneficiaries. House churches, where much of the Pentecostal worship takes place, still must be registered with the government, and new church construction is limited.

Several Cuban church leaders also believe the Communist government is using religious rallies as a way of lobbying the United States government to end the U.S. trade embargo, which religious leaders in many faiths have criticized.

"I don't believe the government has fundamentally changed their plan. But they have become more humanized in acceptance and tolerance by giving space to the churches. Perhaps the strength of the church makes them think twice," Hunter said.

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Garcia reported from Cuba and Ramirez reported from Los Angeles.

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