September 20, 2007

Missionaries pray for Castro's health

No one knows how his death would affect restrictions on religion.

By Sherri Day. Tampa Bay, September 13, 2007.

Linda Archer has done missions work in Cuba before. But this time felt different.

During a 10-day trip to Havana last month, Archer's Methodist missions group was asked to pray - for Cuban President Fidel Castro.

Until then, discussing politics was taboo.

But on this trip Archer learned that members of a local Methodist church pray two hours every day for the government and for Castro's health, hoping to ward off the uncertainty of a new regime.

"The church does not want him to die," said Archer, 44, who attends Hyde Park United Methodist Church in Tampa. "They have the ability to worship, and he allows it. They do not look at his death as a great thing."

Still, with Castro ailing, American missionaries and relief groups wonder about the possibilities a new regime could bring to a country that once sought to suppress religion. The groups still can't witness openly, send money and relief items without restrictions, and erect churches and ministry buildings at will.

But the prayers for Castro underscore the complexity of religion in the country. The same government that once kicked out foreign-born priests in the 1960s welcomed Pope John Paul II in 1998. And just before the pope's visit, Castro lifted a ban on Christmas, making it a national holiday for the first time in nearly three decades.

Observers includingthe Rev. Anthony Kissel say there is an undeniable sense of hope for religious groups in the country right now.

Kissel returned last month from a trip to Cuba with a delegation of professors from Saint Leo University. The group met with a Cuban bishop who spoke about his wish for an end to the trade embargo with the United States and of tangible growth in the Catholic Church through baptisms and a new seminary.

"In the end, there's continued hope for dialogue and for renewal both for the church and for society," said Kissel, chair of the university's department of philosophy and religion.

A variety of religions flourished in Cuba before the 1959 revolution that put Castro in power. He cracked down on churches, particularly Catholics whom he felt did not support his movement and Jehovah's Witnesses, who as a matter of religious principle would not swear allegiance to any government.

The most popular religions in Cuba today are Santeria and Pentecostalism.

Still, most major Protestant denominations and the Catholic Church continue to have a foothold in the country. An estimated 60 percent of Cubans have an affiliation with the Catholic Church, scholars say, although reliable membership rosters are difficult to obtain.

Covertly helping

Scholars attribute Castro's apparent softening to priests' support of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, the pope's trip and a 1984 visit by then presidential candidate the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who visited Cuba at the invitation of churches.

"You have the right, the freedom, to worship in any way you want, unlike in the early 1960s," said Miguel A. De La Torre, director of the Justice and Peace Institute at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver. "You could be a member of the Communist Party and also be a member of the church. However, you don't have the right to or the freedom to criticize the government based on the teachings of your religion."

But the multidecade standoff between the Cuban and American governments has forced some ministries to find covert ways to provide aid to churches in the country.

Archer, for example, carried 46 pounds of clothing and supplies on her recent trip to Cuba and returned with only her toiletries and a dress.

Other faith-based relief agencies boast of more unfettered access. Catholic Relief Services, the international humanitarian arm for American Catholic bishops, works with the Cuban Catholic Church and its aid group, Caritas Cubana, to send humanitarian supplies and aid when requested. Since partnering with the organization in 1993, the Baltimore group has donated about $27-million in aid, officials said.

"We've had relatively no problem from the Cuban government or from the U.S. government," said Brian Goonan, country manager for the organization's Cuba projects. "Going forward, we're very clear that changes in Cuba will have to come from the Cuban people themselves. If the church in Cuba wants us to get more involved, certainly we would do that."

Ray Sanabria, missions pastor at Idlewild Baptist Church in Lutz, leaves this month for a trip to Cuba to meet with Baptist pastors. He hopes to find ways to offer help regardless of what happens with Castro.

It appears that Castro's brother Raul will take control upon his death, but no one is certain. Castro put his brother in charge of the government when he became ill last year.

Finding a way to help

No matter who is in charge, Sanabria and other missionaries pledge to find ways to minister to Cubans in need.

"We would pray that the change in the leadership would open the door to more freedom for religions of all kinds," Sanabria said. "When it opens up to everyone we can all have an equal share of presenting our message. We won't know that until it happens, but that won't stop us from trying to help with the people there."

Archer, the Methodist missionary, is torn. As her Cuban hosts requested, she prayed for Fidel's health while she was in the country. Back home in Westchase, she focuses her prayers on the needs of Cuban people, whom she says are impoverished.

Archer, a self-described moderate Republican who claims to be neither pro or anti-Castro, wants to return to Cuba before a regime change. She plans to go back in March to help build a Methodist seminary.

"As much as the world is waiting for Castro to die, I'm a little concerned about that," said Archer, a marketing representative. "From a spiritual sense, they're so grounded in their faith. We can learn from them. I did."

Information from Times archives was used in this report. Sherri Day can be reached at or (813) 226-3405.

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