Clash Of Faiths

This week Pope John Paul II brings his message of freedom to Fidel Castro's Cuba as two of the world's giants collide

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A modest religious revival is under way in Castro's Cuba. Catholic Church attendance, baptisms, confirmations, religious weddings and funerals are all on the rise. In this traditionally Catholic nation, almost equal numbers attend Catholic Mass or evangelical services, and the religion with the most adherents of all--perhaps half the population--is the Afro-Cuban rite of Santeria. Its babalaos (spiritual guides) far exceed the Catholic priests in influence, but its home-based, loose network of competing sects poses no political threat. Economic hardship is a powerful motivator: many of those new congregants of all faiths are searching for material sustenance in the food and medical aid of the church charities, including Caritas, that are now allowed to funnel foreign contributions into Cuba. The church appeals more as a spiritual sanctuary than as a locus for political rebellion. But in a slow, steady way, people are absorbing Christian ideas about individual worth and human rights.

Fidel Castro has always been a redoubtable tactician, adept at sensing the public temper and clever at catching up with the times. He is also ready to "correct the errors we made in correcting our errors," as he once put it, when it suits his purposes. National unity is a precious component of his authority, and so he will tack when necessary to preserve it. "Fidel wants to authorize what people are already doing spontaneously," says Raul Rivero, a poet and independent journalist. It's like the dollar. When the black market in American currency grew too strong, Castro co-opted it by making greenbacks legal tender. "If Cuba is turning back to religion," he says, "Fidel will in effect sanctify it."

The idea of a papal visit has actually intrigued Cuba's leader for nearly two decades. It is not so strange as it might seem: from the very start of his revolution, Castro has sought political pilgrimages from the influential and famous as a sign of international approbation. And Castro has never feared talking to his adversaries. Although he barred Christians from the Communist Party, nationalized Catholic schools, expelled foreign priests and nuns, he never shut down the churches or prohibited religious worship or broke relations with the Vatican.

In 1979 Castro met some liberation-theology priests in Nicaragua and, says Wayne Smith, former chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, "decided that social justice, greater equality and caring for the poor were not very different goals from those of the Cuban revolution." So he invited the Pontiff to stop by during a Mexican tour that year, but the "technical layover" Castro offered held no appeal to John Paul II.

By 1985 it seemed to Castro that signs of nonconformity and a search for new ideas were infecting the populace. Little by little, people were going back to church. So he spent 23 hours talking to a Brazilian Dominican friar, Frei Betto. The subsequent book, Fidel and Religion, became a national best seller. Here was the apostle of Marxism expounding on his Catholic upbringing and attitudes toward religion. He recalled his devout mother and his rigorous parochial education. He had been baptized and was taught biblical history and Catholic catechism. At his upper-class Jesuit high school he absorbed the determination and discipline of these militant teachers who prophesied in his yearbook that he would make a brilliant name for himself.

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