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Religion: born again Cuba

As socialism struggles, evangelical Christianity surges.

In recent decades, as religious fervor has surged in Cuba, scholars say the appeal of Pentecostalism is so strong that many traditional Protestant denominations have increasingly assimilated its worship style, with vibrant music, passionate sermons and testimonials of personal salvation and miraculous healings. Nadiesca Cisneros, 29, said she became a Christian as a teenager because she felt a "spiritual need to be close to God."

"I needed to know my life's purpose," she said. "And that purpose is serving God," she said.

At the Marianao Methodist Church in western Havana, the congregation has grown from 300 to more than 2,300 since 1994, said Jorge Ortega, a pastor there. Today the church practices “Charismatic” Methodism with electric guitars, drums and little resemblance to the traditional Methodist churches of North America and Europe.

“Our congregation is growing 11 percent every year,” said Ortega. “People are looking for help. There’s a great deal of need here.”

Ortega, who was raised in a secular family, said he was born again 22 years ago when he emerged from eight days in a coma during a battle with spinal meningitis. A music teacher by trade, he said he’s been able to recruit new converts from the public schools where he works, even though it’s prohibited to evangelize there.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, the church’s basement was packed with young people, all computer science students from Cuba’s prestigious University of Information Sciences, whose campus was created out of a former Soviet spy base. Christian students there aren’t allowed to have Bible study groups, or hold their own services on campus, but on Sundays they travel to the church en mass for hours of singing and sermons.

“There are still a lot of restrictions,” said one evangelical student, who didn't want to be named, fearful he could be punished at school. “But every year it seems like there are more of us.”