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Religion: born again Cuba

As socialism struggles, evangelical Christianity surges.

Cuba Religion Christianity Evangelical
(AFP/Getty Images)

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HAVANA, Cuba — In a country with virtually no commercial advertising, where most public signage is the property of the state, the growth of Cuba’s evangelical movement can be measured in the number of church placards spreading around this city.

Some are barely visible, hanging from the doors or windows along residential streets. Others are displayed prominently, like the stately red-lettered sign for the Principe de Paz Pentecostal Church in Diez de Octubre, a gritty Havana neighborhood where nearly everything else is worn and faded.

Over the past two decades, the number of evangelical Christians on the island (pop. 11 million) has soared from roughly 70,000 in 1991 to more than 800,000 today, according to Cuba’s Council of Churches. While the Catholic Church and Afro-Cuban traditions have also made large gains since religious persecutions eased in the 1980s, evangelical Christianity may be the communist-run country’s fastest-growing practice.

The spiritual revival has coincided with a long period of economic hardship that Cubans have faced since the demise of the Soviet Union and the abrupt loss of its generous subsidies. The crisis continues today, with the government announcing last month that it will lay off 500,000 state workers over the next six months.

Faced with shrinking state benefits and fading revolutionary zeal, many Cuban families have turned to churches to fill their economic and existential needs. The growth began in the early 1990s, a time when transportation networks were virtually frozen for lack of fuel and spare parts. Evangelical churches — often tiny congregations meeting in private homes — had the advantage of being local and easily accessible, said Marcial Hernandez, president of Cuba’s Council of Churches.

“Any crisis generates insecurity, and people take refuge in religion,” said Hernandez, who is also a Pentecostal minister.

“But there is something else happening here,” he continued. “People are looking for spiritual fulfillment — not only material. The evangelical faith is the future of this nation.”

In some cities in eastern Cuba like Moa and Baracoa, evangelicals make up 65 to 70 percent of the population, Hernandez said, reflecting the legacy of a strong missionary presence there. Evangelical Christianity has also made huge gains in poorer parts of Havana, where many rural migrants have arrived in recent years, and might find community and a sense of belonging at a local church.

A Pentecostal temple with capacity for 5,000 worshippers has already been approved for construction among the battered tenements of the Havana’s Alamar neighborhood, according to Hernandez, though church leaders are still raising money for the project.

Enrique Lopez Oliva, a religious scholar who teaches at the University of Havana, said the origins of evangelical Christianity can be traced back to Cuba’s independence movement in the late 19th century.

Many of Cuba’s anti-colonial patriots saw themselves rebelling against both the Spanish crown and the Catholic Church, which had dominated the island for centuries. They converted to Protestant faiths while plotting their uprising from exile in the United States.

Cuba Pentecostal Evangelical
Pastor Pedro Juan Castro leads services at the Buenas Nuevas Pentecostal Church in Havana. (Nick Miroff/GlobalPost)

When the United States invaded the island in 1898 during the Spanish-American war, U.S. troops were followed by “a wave of missionaries,” Lopez Oliva said, and the American military government decreed freedom of religion on the island.

“That was the end of the Catholic Church’s monopoly in Cuba,” said Lopez Oliva, who is Catholic. Cuba’s first president, Tomas Estrada Palma, was a Protestant, he noted.

Today the island’s fastest-growing evangelical strain is Pentecostalism. It arrived in Cuba with American missionaries prior to Fidel Castro’s 1959 Revolution, then went dormant in the 1960s and 1970s when Soviet ideology and militant atheism reigned. Religious believers were routinely fired from their jobs and sent to labor camps for “re-education.”