Pope Considering Visit : Religious Atmosphere Improves in Cuba

Times Staff Writer

Standing shoulder to shoulder, the largest crowd of worshipers since Fidel Castro’s Communist revolution all but silenced the Roman Catholic Church here in the early 1960s overflowed into the streets outside the Cathedral of Havana.

As Cardinal Roger Etchegaray of France ended an unusual Vatican mission to Cuba with a solemn New Year’s Mass, he posed a crowd-pleasing question: “What message shall I take to the Pope?”

“That he come! That he come! That he come!” thousands of voices roared in unison.

‘Hear Your Message’


“I hear your message,” replied Etchegaray, president of the Pontifical Commission for Justice and Peace and one of the most powerful men in the Vatican hierarchy. “I don’t know what he will say, but I am certain he will come.”

Etchegaray’s nine-day Cuban tour, capped by an intimate meeting with Castro during Christmas week, underscored an easing of tensions between church and state in the officially atheist country, where practicing Christians and Jews have been objects of government repression for almost 30 years.

The widely expected arrival of Pope John Paul II will officially affirm the improved atmosphere.

Castro has made no secret of his eagerness to welcome the pontiff, partly because a visit would burnish his fading international image and partly because he believes John Paul sees eye to eye with him on many of the world’s secular problems, such as disarmament and Third World debt and poverty.


Despite longstanding diplomatic relations between Havana and the Vatican, the pontiff has been cautious, waiting for positive steps toward religious freedom by the Cuban government before commiting himself.

But now, after pointedly skipping even a refueling stop in Havana during seven trips to Latin America and the Caribbean, the Pope appears ready for the visit and probably will make it part of his next Latin trip in 1990, according to church officials here and in Rome.

John Paul is said to hope that the intense church-state cooperation necessary to prepare a papal visit will accelerate the relaxation of anti-religious pressures, which have already slackened considerably during the past three years.

1% Regular Churchgoers

Church officials also hope his presence will stimulate a religious revival in the country, once overwhelmingly Catholic but where now fewer than 1% of the population of 10 million are regular churchgoers. Officials believe many more would profess their faith if government policies did not bar religious believers from Communist Party membership and thus from favorable jobs and housing.

Castro’s steps toward detente with Catholics, Protestants and Jews in Cuba have been mostly small but significant, according to Enrique Lopez Oliva, a professor of religion and history at Havana University who is himself an example of the government’s relaxed attitude.

Since September, 1987, Lopez has been permitted to circulate the country’s only independent publication, a twice-monthly newsletter, La Religion en Cuba. It reports mostly on Roman Catholic affairs but also covers the country’s 55 small Protestant denominations and the even smaller Jewish community of about 1,000.

Although initially cautious to avoid government censure, the 30-page newsletter recently has become bolder, reporting critical remarks about the Castro government that probably would have earned Lopez, 52, a prison sentence a few years ago.


Last month, for example, he published the text of a sermon by Msgr. Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, secretary general of the Catholic Bishops Conference, that took the Cuban bureaucracy to task for “deceit, dissimulation, apathy and dishonesty” and warned that the “monolithic sociopolitical order could not hide tensions, frustrations.”

But like many of its religious gestures, government tolerance of Lopez’s newsletter is relatively risk-free for the Castro regime. The copier-produced publication has a circulation of only 30 each issue and only 12 paid subscribers, all of them foreign journalists or embassies.

Not all government steps toward better church-state relations have been such small ones, however. In a sharp turnabout from 1962, when Castro expelled 600 of the country’s 800 Catholic priests, the government last year allowed 30 foreign priests to join the 210 native priests already working in Cuba and is ready to approve 30 more this year, Lopez said.

About 30 foreign nuns also arrived last year, and Castro told New York Cardinal John O’Connor, who visited last April, that he will welcome as many more as the church wants to assign to Cuban health and social services work. The Cuban leader has been quoted as describing the nuns already working in Cuban hospitals and mental hospitals as “models for Communists.”

Cuba’s relaxation of official restrictions on religion began with the unusual publication of a book-length series of interviews conducted with Castro in 1985 by Carlos Alberto Christo, a radical Brazilian priest who calls himself Father Betto.

During the interviews Castro recounted his own Catholic upbringing and denied that he opposed the church except for “militants . . . from the rich class that supported the counterrevolution.” Published in Cuba as “Fidel and Religion,” the book sold more than 1 million copies and legitimized limited religious tolerance in the country.

Among other favorable gestures since then, the government restored some long-closed churches as national monuments and gave the Roman Catholic Church materials and help in restoring and renovating others. It also gave financial aid to church-directed homes for the aged and retarded, allowed the Catholic dioceses to install Telex machines that had been ripped out a generation ago and permitted the church to buy automobiles for the use of its officials.

There have been other steps, all of which contributed to the Pope’s current willingness to visit the country, according to church officials.


In late 1987, Cuba allowed the Catholic Church to import 30,000 Bibles, the first to reach the country officially in 16 years, and last year Lopez said it permitted 5,000 ecumenical Bibles to be brought in for Catholic and Protestant groups.

Protestant groups were also allowed to open a circulating library of religious books, and Jews were permitted a few months ago to reopen a long-shuttered Jewish Club in Havana’s historic center. During a visit by Rabbi Arthur Schneier, president of the ecumenical Appeal of Conscience Foundation, Castro said he would approve if the Jewish community here, which has been without a spiritual leader for many years, wants to have a foreign rabbi take up residence.

“There is no question that the situation is improving,” said one senior Catholic official who asked to remain unnamed. “These have been positive steps, and there is better dialogue, where before there was none. But it’s nothing dramatic. It’s a very slow process.”

He said he believed that the Pope, in a visit here, would press Castro for a number of more significant improvements, including a total end to Communist discrimination against religious believers. The church also wants to restore private religious schools seized by the state in the early 1960s and to build new churches.

“We also want more access to the mass media, including radio and television,” Lopez said. “Now the official press publishes nothing on the life of the church. The official newspaper, Granma, didn’t even print a line about Cardinal Etchegaray’s visit. The only Catholic Mass people ever hear is the one that is broadcast every week by Radio Marti,” the special Voice of America service broadcast only to Cuba.

“We look on the Radio Marti Mass as a mixed blessing,” the senior church official noted. “For us, the effort of the church is to identify with Cuban society, to live our faith inside Cuban society. Our method of approach is dialogue, not confrontation. Radio Marti is in itself confrontational. It is American.”