July 10, 2007 / 4:29 PM / 12 years ago

Latin American bishops meet in Cuba

HAVANA (Reuters) - Roman Catholic bishops of Latin America began their first meeting in Cuba on Tuesday in a show of support for the church in the region’s only communist country.

Energized by last month’s visit to Brazil by Pope Benedict, dozens of bishops, including four cardinals and a Vatican envoy, will elect new leaders of the Latin American Bishops Conference (CELAM) during the four day gathering.

Holding the meeting in Havana is a sign of support for the Catholic Church in Cuba, said Monsignor Juan de Dios Hernandez, secretary general of the Cuban bishop’s conference.

“We are different in Latin America. We have been able to evangelize people in a socialist country,” he said in an interview published on the bishops conference Web site.

Catholicism survived the expulsion of priests and decades of official atheism in Cuba following the revolution led by Fidel Castro in 1959.

The church got a big boost from the landmark visit to Cuba by Pope John Paul II in 1998. Churches filled up again and the number of practicing Catholics multiplied.

The Catholic Church is the only major institution in Cuba that is not controlled by the state. But it has not been allowed to build churches, play a role in education or gain access to radio broadcasts let alone television.

About 60 percent of Cubans are baptized by the Catholic Church, but the number of practicing Catholics remains low and the following of evangelical churches has grown rapidly.

Many Cubans believe in Santeria, a religion based on the worship of Yoruba deities brought by African slaves.

Half of Cuba’s 300 Catholic priests are foreigners who depend on government visas to remain in the country.

The Catholic leadership in Cuba has put years of hostility with the state behind it and seeks to maintain good relations with the Communist government.

It recently closed a critical magazine, Vitral, published by the archdiocese of Pinar del Rio.

When Castro underwent emergency intestinal surgery and handed over power to his brother Raul Castro a year ago, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, Archbishop of Havana, who spent time in a labor camp for his religious beliefs in the 1960s, prayed for his recovery and called on Cubans to remain calm.

“The important thing is that the Church is present in Cuba. Who knows what the future will hold in store?” Ortega told Reuters in an interview earlier this year.

Additional reporting by Esteban Israel

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