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Afro-Cuban Drums, Muslim Prayers, Buddhist Mantras: Religious Diversity Blooms in Once-Atheist Cuba

HAVANA (AP) — The 1959 Castro-led revolution installed an atheist, Communist government that sought to replace the Catholic Church as the guiding force in the lives of Cubans.

But 65 years later, religion seems omnipresent in Cuba, in dazzling diversity.

The bells toll on Catholic churches and the call to prayer summons Muslims in downtown Havana. Buddhists chant mantras as they gather at the home of a jazz musician. Jews savor rice, beans and other Cuban staples for Sabbath dinner. Santeria devotees immerse the senses as they dance and slap drums in a museum filled with statues paying homage to their Afro-Cuban deities and leave offerings to the goddess of the sea.

It’s also visible in the growing ranks of evangelicals who worship across the island, in the faith of LGBTQ+ Christians who sing at an inclusive church in the seaport of Matanzas, or in the pilgrims who travel to the remote shrine of Cuba’s patron saint in the shadow of the Sierra Maestra mountains to ask for health and prosperity during a wrenching economic crisis.

FILE – A crucifix is carried by faithful during a Holy Week procession backdropped by a mural of Fidel Castro and Camilo Cienfuegos, in Havana, Cuba, Friday, March 29, 2024. The 1959 revolution led by Castro installed an atheist, Communist government that sought to replace the Catholic Church as the guiding force in the lives of Cubans. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa, File)

Critics say Cuba is still falling short on religious tolerance. The U.S. State Department has designated Cuba a “Country of Particular Concern” for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.

Cuba’s constitution includes provisions for religious freedom and bans religious-based discrimination. But a recent State Department report says provisions in Cuba’s penal and administrative codes “contravene these protections.” The report says the Cuban Communist Party requires religious groups to be officially registered, “and membership in or association with an unregistered group is a crime.”

The report says the Office of Religious Affairs and the Ministry of Justice continue to withhold registration to some groups, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Cuba’s government says the criticism is an excuse for Washington to justify the decades-old economic embargo that dates back to the Cold War.

Some academics and religious leaders say more strides toward full religious freedom are needed, such as easing the process to build houses of worship, allowing access to state-owned media to spread their faith-based messages, and reestablishing private religious schools. But significant progress has been achieved; some call it a time of a Cuban religious revival.

FILE – Juan Gonzalez sits next to his altar adorned Santeria and Catholic deities along with a photo of the late Cuban leader Fidel Castro, at his home in El Cobre, Cuba, Feb. 10, 2024. Diverse beliefs can be found mixed together on altars in Cuban homes, with the Virgin Mary sharing space with a ceramic Buddha and a warrior spirit from the Afro-Cuban faith. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa, File)

“I don’t know whether the religious revival has occurred in Cuba as a result of the (evangelical) Protestants involvement in the island, or as a result of the frustrations of the Cubans, or the result of a tolerance that the Cuban government seems to show toward religion,” said Jaime Suchlicki, former director of the University of Miami Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies.

“Maybe a combination of all these factors have really revived religion in the island.”

More than 60% of Cuba’s 11 million people are baptized Catholic, according to the church. But experts estimate that as many, or more, also follow Afro-Cuban traditions such as Santeria that intermingle with Catholicism.

“Cubans are believers, but sometimes they believe in everything,” said Monsignor Ramon Suarez, chancellor of the archdiocese of Havana and author of “History of the Catholic Church in Cuba.”

Cuba’s religious landscape is so diverse that it would be wrong to simply say the island is Catholic or Afro-Cuban Santeria, said Maximiliano Trujillo, a philosophy professor at Havana University who has written about Cuban religion.

Jewish children eat pieces of challah bread after the prayer was recited during a Shabbat service at the Beth Shalom synagogue, in Havana, Cuba, Friday, Feb. 16, 2024. Jews are believed to have arrived to Cuba with Christopher Columbus in 1492, but the Cuban community officially began in the early 20th century, said the vice president of Cuba’s Hebrew Community. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

“There’s a very unique religiosity,” he said. “In Cuba, it’s not uncommon that someone goes to meet a babalao (Santeria high priest) in the morning and can visit a Pentecostal temple in the afternoon, and at night goes to Mass – and doesn’t see any type of conflict in its spirituality.”

Today, diverse beliefs can be found mixed together on altars in homes, with the Virgin Mary sharing space with a ceramic Buddha and a warrior spirit from the Afro-Cuban faith.

But when Suarez did his military service as a young seminarian, he kept his Bible hidden, fearing it would get confiscated.

“You couldn’t say anything about religion,” said Suarez, who today is one of Cuba’s highest ranking Catholic leaders.

The Catholic Church — long associated with Cuba’s wealthier citizens — took an anti-communist stance shortly before Fidel Castro declared the country to be socialist in 1961. The government later accused prominent Catholics of trying to topple Castro. Public religious events were banned after processions were transformed into political protests, sometimes turning violent.

Hundreds of foreign priests were expelled, and private schools — including more than 100 Catholic schools — that had operated across Cuba were nationalized.

Many Cuban priests were sent to military-run labor camps in the mid-1960s. The government became officially atheist – religion was not allowed and believers of all faiths were banned from membership in the Communist Party.

A Muslim boy engages with his tablet at the mosque after prayer, in Havana, Cuba, Friday, Feb. 16, 2024. The only mosque in Havana opened in 2015 and the Muslim community has grown to about 2,500 people nationwide. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

Church-state relation began to warm three decades later when Castro met with dozens of evangelical leaders and representatives from the local Jewish community. In 1992, the government dropped its constitutional references to atheism. The first papal visit to the island in 1998 marked a turning point that led to government acceptance of some outdoor religious events and the celebration of Christmas outside churches for the first time in more than three decades.

“John Paul II marks the start of the opening – there’s a before and after,” said Suarez, speaking at the iron gate-guarded Catholic headquarters that stands next to a plaque commemorating the pope’s historic visit.

John Paul II was greeted at Havana’s airport by Castro, who wore a suit and tie instead of his typical military uniform.

“May Cuba, with all its magnificent potential, open itself up to the world, and may the world open itself up to Cuba,” the pope said.

The Catholic Church still wants to eventually be allowed to operate religious schools and broadcast on state-run television and radio. “We have a long way to go,” Suarez said.

Arguably the most popular religion in Cuba is Santeria, which fuses Catholicism with Afro-Caribbean traditions.

Santería was born as a form of quiet resistance among Cuba’s Black communities. It dates back centuries to when Spanish colonists brought hundreds of thousands of enslaved Africans to Cuba, many from the Yoruba tribe of Nigeria.

Twin brothers Yasnel and Yasmel Quintana, bottom left, meditate in the home of Cuban jazz musician Cesar Lopez, back left, and his wife Seiko Ishii, right center, in Havana, Cuba, Sunday, Feb. 4, 2024. Ten years ago, the Quintana twins who were raised in an Afro-Cuban family that follows Santeria, joined the local branch of the Soka Gakkai, a global Japanese Buddhist organization. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

The Spanish tried to force Catholicism on the enslaved, but the Africans who made that transatlantic voyage brought their own religions, camouflaging them by attaching symbols of their orishas – Yoruba deities – to Catholic saints.

“They came in terrible conditions … but in their hair and their humble clothes, they brought snail shells, collars and other parts of the essence of their religion,” said Gloria Esperanza Reyes, historian of the Yoruba Association.

For six decades, she has made a monthly offering of flowers and cane syrup to the goddess of the sea after doctors told her that she wouldn’t live long because of a heart condition. She recently turned 82.

“It’s very important (to preserve) the Yoruba faith because we are also learning more about plants and animals,” she said. “It can even save our lives.”

Santeria long remained on the political margins due to its scattered, nonhierarchical nature and centuries of taboo and racism. In recent years, it has grown in prominence.

FILE – Rev. Elaine Saralegui, wearing a rainbow-colored clergy stole and her clerical collar, welcomes congregants to a service at the Metropolitan Community Church, an LGBTQ+ inclusive house of worship, as Ruth the dog stands with her front paws on the altar table, in Matanzas, Cuba, Feb. 2, 2024. In 2015, with support from the U.S.-based LGBTQ+ affirming Metropolitan Community Churches, they converted a house into their church, decked with wooden pews and a stained-glass cross that hangs above the altar. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa, File)

“We, the young ones, we’re learning from the elders,” said Alena Ferro, a dancer and Yoruba faith devotee who often lights candles and flowers honoring her orishas at a home altar.

These days, music from Santeria drum ceremonies echoes from inside the Yoruba Cultural Association of Cuba into the American Brotherhood Park, known for its large ceiba, a sacred tree in Afro-Cuban religions. On a recent day, young dancers synchronized their moves to the fast batá drumbeat at a rehearsal paying homage to their orishas.

“I have so much faith in my saint,” said dancer Susie Stuart Castellanos.

Nearby was a statue of Yemaya, the Yoruba goddess of the sea. She also is venerated in her sky-blue shawl as Our Lady of Regla, a Black Madonna at a Catholic church across the Bay of Havana.

Beyond Catholicism and Santeria, Cuba has numerous smaller but vibrant faiths. Among them:

JUDAISM

At Cuba’s largest synagogue, ancient Jewish traditions and Cubanness often blend. At times, Sabbath dinners at Beth Shalom include Cuban black beans and rice — a popular dish known as Moros y Cristianos or Moors and Christians. During Rosh Hashana, Jews worldwide traditionally dip apples in honey to wish each other a sweet new year. Beth Shalom congregants say they use easier to find tropical fruits like guavas and bananas.

Jews are believed to have arrived to Cuba with Christopher Columbus in 1492, but the Cuban community officially began in the early 20th century, said Hella Ezkenazi, vice president of Cuba’s Hebrew Community. After WWII, more European Jews arrived.

Gloria Esperanza Reyes makes her monthly offering of flowers and sugarcane syrup to Yemaya, the Yoruba goddess of the sea, in Havana, Cuba, Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2024. She also is venerated as Our Lady of Regla, a Black Madonna at a Catholic church across the Bay of Havana. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

The community grew to an estimated 15,000 at its peak in the 1950s, but most emigrated to the U.S. after the 1959 revolution when many of their businesses where confiscated. Today, there are about 1,000 Jews living in Cuba.

As the sun set on a recent Friday, about 100 members of Beth Shalom gathered for the Sabbath to pray. Several later joined hands in a Israeli dance infused with Cuban rhythms.

“We show our love for being Jewish, our roots,” said Betina Acosta, 24, who is part of the Israeli folk dance group and teaches the congregation’s children. “We’re Cuban, and we’re also Jewish.”

ISLAM

The only mosque in Havana opened in 2015 and the Muslim community has grown to about 2,500 people nationwide, said Ahmed Aguero, one of the mosque’s leaders. He owns a nearby restaurant where community members often gather.

“We’re pioneers in spreading the religion here,” he said. “Sometimes they have a bad impression of Muslims, they fear that we’re bad or even terrorists, until they meet us and they learn about the real practice of our religion.”

Among the mosque’s worshippers is Ubakar Bari, who emigrated from the West African nation of Guinea-Bissau. He was grateful to find a welcoming Muslim community that offered him a meal and helped him rent a room.

“It was such a huge surprise,” he said. “I never thought I’d find a community like this in Havana.”

BUDDHISTS

Twin brothers Yasnel and Yasmel Quintana were raised in an Afro-Cuban family that follows Santeria, but they never practiced that faith. Instead, they were exposed to a subculture of manga comics, animated movies and video games and began to learn Japanese — an example of how one of the world’s least connected countries has adapted to global trends. Ten years ago, they joined the local branch of the Soka Gakkai, a global Japanese Buddhist organization.

On a recent Sunday, they went to the home of Cuban jazz musician Cesar Lopez and his wife, Japan-born Seiko Ishii, where group members often meet to meditate.

“Buddhism became our first and only religion, where we felt identified and grew spiritually,” said Yasmel.

Soka Gakkai is present in more than 190 countries, according to the group. In Cuba, it grew from a few people in 2015 to about 500 today.

“It’s so awesome that this is a religion that comes from a country so far from this island, and you’re hearing Cubans singing with us in Japanese,” said Ishii, who grew up in Buddhism in Japan.

“There are so many Cubans who grew up without a religion and who have understood our philosophy and Japanese culture,” said Ishii, a musical producer. “It transcends race, languages and countries. Like music, religion has no barriers.”

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By LUIS ANDRES HENAO Associated Press

Associated Press writer Andrea Rodriguez contributed to this report.

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Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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