For the first time in 55 years, a new Catholic Church will be erected in Cuba -- a sign that the country’s communist government is improving relations with the Vatican. The church which will be built in Santiago de Cuba, where many churches were damaged or destroyed during Hurricane Sandy.
“I think it’s not only about improving attitudes to the Catholic Church, but to churches in general,” Archbishop of Santiago de Cuba, Dionisio García Ibáñez, told the BBC. “I think there’s a better understanding of religious affairs, so we hope it won’t only be this church that we build. We hope there’ll be more.”
Soon after Fidel Castro became president, many church properties were confiscated. The communist country was officially atheist between 1962 and 1992. Since then, a network of home churches was established. Tensions began to ease in 1998 after Pope John Paul II visited. The country’s permission for the new Catholic church may be a sign the tide is changing.
"The construction of a church is a clear demonstration of a new phase, of an improvement, in relations between the church and the state," Enrique Lopez Oliva, a professor of the history of religions at the University of Havana, told the Associated Press.
The church is funded in part by parishioners from Tampa, Florida, most of whose members are Cuban exiles or descendants of exiles. The church will be able to house 200 people. Part of it will be built from steel beams from the stage Pope Benedict XVI stood on when he performed Mass in Havana in 2012.
"Reusing the metal means keeping alive the memory of something good for us Catholics. It gives it new life, so it can serve future generations," Fausto Veloz, an engineer on the project, told the BBC. According to the Catholic Church around 60 percent of the Cuban population has been baptized. Only a small fraction are regular churchgoers.
Most religious groups have reported reduced government interference in religious organizations, which includes attracting new members, conducting services, importing religious materials and receiving foreign donations. Official observance of Christmas has been returned. Homilies and mass are allowed to be broadcast on official media. Still, a recent U.S. State Department report on religious freedom in Cuba shows there’s more progress to be made.
The Cuban Communist Party, through its Office of Religious Affairs (ORA), has “harassed outspoken religious leaders, prevented human rights activists from attending religious services, and in some cases employed violence to prevent activists from engaging in public political protests” after services, the report said.
Indeed, thousands of dissidents have been arrested in Cuba over the past couple years -- mostly due to the rising number of citizens who are publicly opposing the government. According to the report, many were arrested during or after organizing meetings or public protests and on their way to or from church.
"There are more demonstrations of the people's discontent," Elizardo Sanchez, president of the The Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, told Reuters.