The largest organized religion in Cuba is Roman Catholicism which was imposed to the island by the Spanish colonizers in the XV century. However the Roman Catholic Church has never been as influential in Cuba as in other Latin American countries and even before the Revolution, the Church was seen as the religion of the affluent. In the 1950s, approximately 85% of all Cubans were nominally Roman Catholic, but the Church itself conceded that only about 10% were active members.
Church and State were separated at the beginning of the 20th century when Spain was defeated by the USA and a constituent assembly approved a new constitution. The domination of the USA after that time encouraged the spread of Protestantism, although Catholicism remained the religion of the majority. After the Revolution, relations between the Catholic Church and the government were frosty. Most priests left the country and some joined the émigrés in Miami. By the late 1970s, the Vatican’s condemnation of the US embargo helped towards a gradual reconciliation.
A ban on religious believers joining the Communist Party was lifted in 1992, and the constitution was amended to characterize the state as secular instead of atheist. In 1994, Cardinal Jaime Ortega was appointed by the Vatican to fill the position left vacant in Cuba since the last cardinal died in 1963.
In 1996, Fidel Castro visited Pope John Paul II at the Vatican and the Pope visited Cuba in January 1998. Fidel has stated in the past that there is no conflict between Marxism and Christianity and has been sympathetic towards supporters of liberation theology in their quest for equality and a just distribution of social wealth. At the Pope’s request, the Cuban government decreed the 25th of December a public holiday again. Christmas Day celebration had been suspended in the 1960s.
The Virgin of Charity (La Virgen de la Caridad) is Cuba’s patron saint. Her shrine in the mining town of El Cobre, outside Santiago in southwest Cuba, is the most important religious site on the entire island. In 1998, Pope John Paul II crowned her statue during his historic visit to the island.
Afro-Cuban religions, a blend of native African religions and Roman Catholicism, are widely practiced in Cuba. From the mid-16th century to the late 19th century, countless hundreds of thousands of African slaves were brought to Cuba. They carried with them a system of animistic beliefs that they managed to hide behind a Catholic veneer.
The most numerous group were the Yoruba who came from Nigeria. It is their pantheon of deities or orishas which form the basis of the syncretic Regla de Ocha cult, better known as Santería. Unlike the Catholic saints, however, the orichas do not represent perfection and they have many human frailties. For every orisha there is a complex code of conduct, dress (including color-coded necklaces), diet, and a series of chants and rhythms played on the sacred batá drums.
Among the most important orishas are Obatala who always dresses in white and is associated with Our Lady of Mercy; Chango whose color is red and is syncretized with Saint Barabara; and Yemaya, the goddess of the sea, who is identified with the color blue and associated with the Virgen of Regla. Another powerful orisha is Ochun, the goddess of love and the rivers. Her color is yellow and she is associated with the Virgin of Charity of El Cobre. Babalu Aye is the orisha of illness and disease and is traditionally dressed in purple. He has been syncretized with Saint Lazarus, and is regarded as particularly miraculous.
Slaves originally from Congo practiced the Conga Rule or Palo Monte. Found mainly in Havana and Matanzas provinces, Palo Monte is a much more fragmented and impoverished belief system than Regla de Ocha, and has borrowed aspects from it and other sources. This religion is basically animist, and uses the forces of nature to perform good or evil magic and predict the future in ceremonies involving rum, tobacco and at times gunpowder.
An important element of this belief is the nganga, a receptacle in which various objects, organic materials and minerals, key to the faith, are collected and carefully guarded by religious leaders. Regla Conga also boasts a wealth of complex magic symbols.
Another religious manifestation of African origin is the Abakuá Secret Society. This closed sect is open to men only, and has been described as an Afro-Cuban freemasonry. The sect originated among carabali slaves brought from the Calabar region of southern Nigeria and Cameroon. These groups are associations for mutual protection and assistance and are found almost exclusively in Havana, Matanzas and Cienfuegos.
While Protestants arrived to Cuba early in its colonial days, and especially during the British occupation in 1762, most of their churches did not flourish until the twentieth century with the assistance of American missionaries. As a result, Cuban Protestantism was molded from the denominations found in the American society.
Membership in Protestant churches today is estimated to be 5 percent and the Baptists are believed to be the largest Protestant denomination. Other denominations include Jehovah's Witnesses, Methodists, Episcopalians, the Assembly of God, and Presbyterians.
Judaism is practiced by members of a small Hebrew community in Cuba. The pre-Revolution Jewish population in the island was about 15 000 but after 1959 thousands of Jews decided to emigrate.
Nowadays there are about 1500 Jews living in Cuba, approximately 1000 live in Havana and the rest mainly in Santiago, Camaguey and Santa Clara. One Sephardic and two Ashkenazi synagogues function in Havana, as well as one kosher butcher. The Conservative Beth Shalom synagogue, largest of the three synagogues, houses a Jewish community center, a library and a pharmacy.
In the 1990’s the Jewish community began to rebuild. Rabbis from Chile, Argentina, Panama and Mexico came to teach the remaining Cuban Jews how to pray and lead services, and Jewish organizations in Canada began sending kosher food for Passover. Within 10 years, a growing number of activities were established, including the Sunday school where children ages 6 through 14 learn Jewish culture and tradition. The Jewish community also has two cemeteries in Guanabacoa, on the east side of Havana harbour.
Masonic membership in Cuba is a little more than 26,000, with 314 lodges throughout the country. The city of Havana has the largest number of Masonic members in the island.
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