Updated: Friday, Jan. 16, 1998 at 12:07 CST
Cuba's other Christians: Island's Protestant population climbing
By Ira Rifkin
© 1998 Religion News Service
Lois Kroehler can remember what it was like for Protestants
in Cuba in the late 1950s: Roman Catholics would cross the street
rather than walk past the Presbyterian-affiliated school she ran
in Cardenas, about 90 miles east of Havana.
"The local Catholic priest taught that Protestants were the
devil and that the people should not send their children to our
school," said Kroehler, an American who has spent more than 40
years in Cuba as a Presbyterian missionary.
Protestants were a distinct minority in overwhelmingly Catholic,
pre-Castro Cuba when Kroehler, fresh out of the University of
Nebraska, followed her religious inclinations and moved to the
Caribbean island nation, where she has lived ever since.
It's a different story today.
The Cuba Pope John Paul II will visit for five days beginning
Wednesday (Jan. 21) is now the Western Hemisphere's only Spanish-speaking
nation in which the number of practicing Protestants comes close
to equaling the number of practicing Catholics.
Moreover, Cuba's Protestant churches are growing at a faster rate
than the island's Catholic Church, which suffers from an acute
shortage of priests and bore the brunt of Fidel Castro's past
"We're not talking about Mexico or Peru here," said Mario Antonio
Ramos, a Cuban-born Southern Baptist pastor who now lives in Miami.
"Cuba has lots of American influences and a tradition of religious
diversity that has proved fertile for Protestant evangelism."
Like its Latin American neighbors, Cuba has a long history of
Catholic religious association, dating from the 16th-century arrival
of Spanish colonizers. And despite almost four decades of Cuban
Marxism and, at times, severe persecution, the Cuban Catholic
Church remains the nation's largest single entity not under government
But institutional breadth aside, the Catholic Church's religious
hold over Cubans is limited. While about 40 percent of Cuba's
11 million people are baptized Catholics, only about 400,000 attend
services at the island's 650 Catholic churches and 200 "casas
de mision," or prayer houses.
Moreover, many of those baptized as Catholics are closer to the
Afro-Cuban folk religion Santeria than they are the church.
"For many Santeria followers, Catholic baptism is a requirement.
But that doesn't really make them Catholic," said Andres Perez
y Mena, an expert on Afro-Cuban religion who teaches at Long Island
University in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Santeria -- "the way of the saints" in Spanish -- combines the
worship of traditional African dieties with the adoration of Catholic
saints. The deities were given saint's names by Cuba's slave population
to fool their Spanish colonial masters who imposed Catholic conversion
As many as 3 million Cubans are involved in Santeria, according
to some estimates. Santeria, which is home-centered and has no
institutional structure, involves ritual animal sacrifice -- usually
using chickens or goats -- and physical and psychological healing
Meanwhile, more than 300,000 Cubans belong to the nation's 54
Protestant denominations, who operate some 1,666 churches and
hundreds of home-based congregations, said the Rev. Pablo Oden
Marichal, an Episcopal priest and national coordinator of the
Cuban Council of Churches. More than 700 of the churches have
been established since 1992, when the Cuban government jettisoned
its official "atheist" status and relabeled the nation "secular."
"The evangelical churches (as Protestant churches are generally
referred to in Cuba and elsewhere in Latin America) are growing
very rapidly, much faster than the Catholic Church," Marichal
"While the Catholics are concentrated in the cities, evangelical
churches are everywhere in Cuba. Even in remote mountain areas.
So people looking for religion see us where they do not see Catholic
priests or churches."
Cuba's Protestant churches also command a higher degree of theological
loyalty than does the Cuban Catholic Church. The influence on
them of Santeria and other Afro-Cuban religious beliefs is much
"The Protestants in Cuba are very Protestant, just like they are
in Georgia or Alabama," said Ramos, who is also acting dean of
Miami's South Florida Center for Theological Studies.
Protestantism arrived in Cuba during the mid-18th century, brought
there by American missionaries and later by returning Cuban political
exiles who plotted the end of Spanish rule from safehavens in
the United States.
Today, Cuba's Protestant leadership is largely homegrown, with
virtually all pastors being Cuban. That's in contrast to the Cuban
Catholic Church, more than half of whose about 290 priests are
Cuba's Protestant leaders -- under the aegis of the Cuban Council
of Churches -- will meet with the pope during his upcoming visit.
The session is scheduled for the morning of Jan. 25, just prior
to what promises to be the best-attended Mass of the papal visit.
That Mass is set for Havana's Revolution Square on the pope's
last day in Cuba.
Baptists -- about 70,000 strong -- constitute the largest Protestant
grouping in Cuba. Seventh-day Adventists, Methodists, Presbyterians
and Episcopalians are among the larger Protestant groups.
Pentecostal groups, such as the Assemblies of God, and charismatic
movements within the mainline denominations are a mainstay of
Cuban Protestantism today.
"Cuban culture is Caribbean," said Harvard Divinity School professor
Harvey Cox. "It's emotional and has a strong African component
imported by the slaves. Pentecostal faith is experiential, communitarian,
healing and body-involving. It fits right in with the Caribbean
Both Catholic and Protestant leaders in Cuba talk today of the
nation's new interest in religion as an alternative to Cuba's
faltering Marxist ideology and the despair over the poverty gripping
But observers of the Cuban religious scene say the ranks of the
nation's Protestant churches also have grown since the 1959 revolution
that established Castro's rule simply because, like the revolution,
they, too, presented an alternative to a discredited Catholic
While the Protestant churches were also persecuted during the
early years of Castro's rule, they faced fewer adversities than
did the Catholic Church, which was heavily identified with the
deposed government of Fulgencio Batista and actively opposed Castro's
attempts to nationalize the private sector.
"The church set itself up against the government out of fear of
communism," said Anthony Stevens-Arroyo, president of the Program
for the Analysis of Religion Among Latinos (PARAL) at the City
University of New York. "It overestimated its power and paid a
Much of the Catholic Church's base of support -- upper- and middle-class
white Cubans -- were among the first Cubans to flee the island
for the United States and elsewhere.
Protestants, on the other hand, "were more sympathetic with the
revolution because they were never in power," explained the Rev.
Oscar Boliolo, Latin America and Caribbean director for the New
York-based National Council of Churches.
"With the revolution, Protestants felt they gained a voice in
Cuban society, as limited as it may be."
Perez y Mena said Cuban Protestants remain closer to the Castro
government than practicing Catholics and more likely to "participate
in the search for Christian-based socialism" in Cuba.
"Their activism is what's keeping some social projects alive,"
The government has rewarded the Protestant churches by allowing
the Cuban Council of Churches to broadcast on state radio at Christmas
and Easter. Catholics have been denied that privilege, although
Havana Cardinal Jaime Ortega was allowed to make an unprecedented
appearance Tuesday (Jan 13) on state television, a concession
made as part of the papal visit.
Distributed by The Associated Press (AP)
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