HAVANA TIMES, May 18 (IPS) — Interest in religion is on the upsurge in Cuba, indicated by the growth and variety of the faiths being practiced as well as by the ease with which people participate in more than one spiritual community at a time.
According to Ana Celia Perera, a researcher at the government’s Centre for Psychological and Sociological Research (CIPS), a religious “revival” can be said to be occurring in Cuba because new groups and actors are flourishing, and the devout are extending their social involvement.
She was speaking at a workshop on “Discovering Channels for Communication and Coming Together”, organized by the Oscar Arnulfo Romero Reflection and Solidarity Group (OAR), a civil society organization of Christian inspiration that is celebrating its 25th anniversary.
Perera says the religious upsurge began in the late 1980s and reached its peak during the crisis of the 1990s, although it was not only due to the economic hardship that affected Cuba’s 11.2 million people after the collapse of socialism in Eastern Europe.
Other factors have included a greater openness to religions by the state, constitutional changes supporting equality between believers and non-believers, authorization for people subscribing to a religious faith to participate in the country’s political organizations, and the vigorous outreach of religious organizations and institutions themselves.
Perera, who has written several essays on religion, says that research conducted in the late 1980s already showed a rich and diverse religious life in Cuba: over 60 percent of the population at that time claimed to have religious beliefs, and only 16 percent said they had none.
In recent years, religious mobility has risen, meaning that many people have attended a series of different churches or religious communities that in the past would have been regarded as being in conflict, in a quest for a spirituality that meets their needs, she said.
At present, CIPS is seeing a large number of new groups and variants of traditional churches, largely arising from Protestant denominations, as well as other forms of social outreach.
Nowadays the groups tend to be concentrated in marginalized areas and among needy groups, like the elderly, the disabled and people who have moved to the city from other parts of the country without permission, Perera said.
Because of the secrecy surrounding Santería, an Afro-Cuban religion with a large following on the island, it is impossible to tell whether the number of its devotees is rising or not; however, it has gained more formal institutions as well as greater respect over the last decade, especially through the writings of its own practitioners.
During the workshop, Vivian Sabater, a professor at the University of Havana’s Faculty of Philosophy and History, called for all prejudice to be set aside as she spoke about building socialism in Cuba from both Marxist and religious points of view.
Sabater said there was no reason for a divorce between a non-capitalist social order and religious plurality. Reverend Raquel Suárez, pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Havana’s Marianao neighborhood, called for a new kind of church that would base its pastoral practice on a liberated view of women and acceptance of sexual diversity.
In her view, feminist theology should get out of its academic ivory towers and stimulate thought and debate in the congregations, spreading its efforts throughout the Christian community. “Religions in Cuba tend to be fundamentalist, and therefore somewhat ‘machista’,” she said.
The OAR workshop coincided with Cuba’s Day Against Homophobia, organized by the National Sex Education Centre (CENESEX) headed by Mariela Castro, President Raúl Castro’s daughter, who spoke at the inauguration about respect for freely chosen sexual orientation and gender identity.
In this regard, Suárez regretted that several Cuban churches have organized prayer sessions in recent days to pray “for homosexuality not to be promoted” in Cuba. “We have to work on the model of society that we want to build,” said Suárez, who advocated a transformation of religious models and practice, and the proposal of a concrete alternative to the dominant cultural system.
The OAR meeting, held May 11-13 in Havana, also included academic conferences and debates about gender, the feminization of poverty, violence, social participation and community work. “These meetings bring us up-to-date and encourage the exchange of ideas. We can compare and contrast what we are doing with what others are doing. That is why they are very useful,” psychiatrist Teresa Rebustillo, of the B.G. Lavastida Centre for Christian Service and Training, in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba, told IPS.