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Wednesday, 21 January, 1998, 07:55 GMT
Cuba's second coming?
Havana's Plaza de la Revolucion
Havana's Plaza de la Revolucion is the heart of the Communist regime
Can the pope revive Catholicism in Cuba?

In his historic visit to Cuba, Pope John Paul II will say open mass in the Plaza de la Revolucion, the heart of Mr Castro's communist regime.

Standing near Mr Castro and in the long shadow of the colossal sculpture of the legendary revolutionary, Che Guevara, the pope hopes to deliver a message of hope to a nation of Catholics.

Che Guevara
Can the pope compete with the legend of Che Guevara?
But after years of living under an atheist regime, Cuba is no longer a profoundly Catholic country. Indeed, some of the most frequent questions young Cubans ask are: Who is the pope? And who, precisely, is Jesus Christ?

Cubans' lack of familiarity with Catholicism is not surprising.

Religious education was banned in 1961. There are only about 260 priests on this island of 11 million people, and Cuba is the only Latin American nation that the pope has not visited during his 18-year pontificate.

Although 85% of Cubans said they were Catholics when Mr Castro took power in 1959, today it is estimated that only 40% to 45 % identify with the religion. Only 5% are practising Catholics.

Catholicism also has been pushed back by rival religions, most seriously Santeria.

Pope John Paul II
Pope John Paul II wants to bring Cubans back into the fold
Santeria is a mixture of animistic religions brought to Cuba by West African slaves and the Catholicism they were forced to adapt. The name itself stems from the word "saint" as slaves would pretend to say Catholic prayers to mask rituals, sacrifices and chants dedicated to Santeria's holy orishas.

There are estimates that up to 70% of Cubans practice some form of Santeria. It is even rumoured that Mr Castro himself could be a believer.

But the pope's visit does harbinger a sea change in Cuba's relationship with religion.

It is the greatest sign of Mr Castro's warming relations with the Church, which began in 1992. Then, thanks to amendments to the constitution, religious believers were allowed for the first time to join the Communist party. And last week, the leading Roman Catholic figure in Cuba, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, was allowed to give his first live address on state-run television.

The Vatican hopes that the pope's "pastoral" visit will revive Catholicism on the island nation. Analysts say that he is likely to make progress as long as he does not stray too far into politics.

For 39 years, Fidel Castro - not Jesus Christ - has been the Cuban symbol of freedom and progress. And that will be difficult to change.

See also:

21 Nov 97 | Americas
14 Jan 98 | Despatches
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