Monday, August 07, 2006

Cubans offer numerous prayers for Castro

People wave Cuban flags in support of Cuban leader Fidel Castro in Havana,Sunday, Aug.6,2006. Cubans gathered early Sunday to answer the government call to reaffirm their commitment to Castro and the revolution while authorities said that the Cuban leader was steadily improving from the major surgery that prompted him to temporarily cede power to his brother Raul on Monday.
(AP Photo/ Javier Galeano)

Sunday, August 6, 2006 · Last updated 3:16 p.m. PT


HAVANA -- Cubans are publicly praying to the African gods of Santeria, the saints of Roman Catholicism and the God of Protestant faiths in appeals for the health of ailing leader Fidel Castro and peace on the island.

Profoundly spiritual, many Cubans never put aside religious beliefs, even during three decades when the Communist government was officially atheist and religious believers of all kinds were viewed with suspicion.

Now many Cubans are turning to their faiths for comfort and hope with government leaders warning of foreign invasion, calls from abroad for democratic change and no sight of their ailing leader for nearly a week.

"All those who have something to do with the spiritual life should ask for the health of people, in this case of the Comandante Fidel Castro," said Alfredo Trujillo Pena, a babalawo, or priest of Santeria, a faith blending African and Roman Catholic traditions.

Trujillo said after learning of Castro's ailment that he gathered with a dozen other babalawos to consult the Santeria gods. Orula, the deity of prediction, "said that this will be transitory," and Castro will survive his current illness, he said.

Invoking Cuba's patron saint, the Virgin of Caridad, Roman Catholic Cardinal Jaime Ortega called on parishioners Sunday to pray for Castro's health, peace on the island, and fraternity among all Cubans, both here and abroad.

"We pray for the fatherland, for Cuba, and those who are leading it," Ortega told reporters in brief comments after his regular Sunday Mass at the cathedral in Old Havana. "In this way it is putting the future in the hands of the Lord."

Cuba's Bishops Conference in recent days issued a statement calling on the island's Catholics to pray for Castro's recovery and ask God to "illuminate" his brother Defense Minister Raul Castro during his provisional leadership of the nation.

"Above all, our plea is that nothing breaks the concord among Cubans, nor disturbs the peace among us," the cardinal said, adding that the church "would never accept in the least bit any foreign intervention."

Castro was also mentioned in prayers at Cuba's Protestant churches.

"As followers of Jesus of Nazareth, we will maintain our personal and community prayers for the rapid reestablishment of our president's health," the Rev. Raul Suarez, a Baptist minister and parliament deputy, said in a communique.

At the Yoruba Cultural Association of Cuba, which represents 3,700 babalawos, president Antonio Castaneda declined to provide details of ceremonies being held, "but many (rituals) are being held for the benefit of the country and many people have called us worried about the comandante," he said.

Relations between church and state improved greatly in the early 1990s, when Cuba dropped all references to atheism from its constitution and allowed religious believers of all faiths to join the Communist Party for the first time.

Pope John Paul II became the first Roman Catholic pontiff to visit the island in 1998.

In Miami, home to a large Cuban exile community, santeros said that they were not praying for Castro's recovery - though they weren't praying for his death either.

"I wouldn't pray for nobody to die," said Sandra Leon, who runs Botanica La Esperanza, a shop in Miami's Little Havana filled with bowls used in Santeria rituals. "It's not that I wouldn't be thrilled. But I wouldn't go in front of a saint and ask for something so human" rather than a more spiritual request.

Leon, who left Cuba in 1968 at the age of 17, said she and others in her group pray for positive changes in their homeland and that there is no violence when Castro dies.

"We pray for Cuba to change all the time, but the destiny of a nation is a really difficult thing to change," she said.

Leon said she did plan an animal offering - a chicken or goat, perhaps - in gratitude if there is a permanent change in power.

Associated Press writer Matt Sedensky in Miami contributed to this report.

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