Cuban Santeros wary as pope’s visit looms

John Paul II snubbed its priests in ‘98 tour

HAVANA — They cast snail shells to read their fortunes, proudly wear colorful necklaces to ward off illness, dress all in white and dance in “bata” drum ceremonies.

But although their Afro-Cuban Santeria religion owes much to Roman Catholicism, many are decidedly unenthusiastic about Pope Benedict XVI’s March 26-28 tour of Cuba, even if it is being hailed as a watershed moment for a church seeking to boost its influence on this communist-run island.

Santero priests still remember the last time a pontiff came to town - and flatly refused to meet with them. They are expecting no better treatment this time, and some are openly disappointed.

Their religion is by far the most popular on the island, with adherents outnumbering practicing mainstream Catholics 8 to 1. Yet as far as the Catholic Church is concerned, “we live in the basement, where nobody sees us,” said Lazaro Cuesta, a Santero high priest with a strong grip and a penetrating gaze.

“We have already seen one pope visit … and at no moment did he see fit to talk to us.”

Mr. Cuesta’s bitterness stems from what many Santeria leaders see as an unforgivable snub by Pope John Paul II during his historic 1998 tour.

Before that visit, Santero high priests, or “babalawo,” led a daylong ceremony to ask the spirits to protect John Paul and make his trip a success. As men, women and children danced to the throb of African drums, the priests blew cigar smoke and spat consecrated alcohol to salute the dead.

But while the pope met with evangelicals, Orthodox leaders and representatives of the island’s minuscule Jewish community, he never deigned to meet with the Santeria practitioners who had danced for his good health, or even to acknowledge their faith.

No ‘institutional leadership’

Experts say as many as 80 percent of islanders observe some kind of Afro-Cuban religion, be it Santeria, which is more properly known as Regla de Ocha-Ifaor, or one of its lesser-known ones.

Practicing Catholics number fewer than 10 percent, and as elsewhere in Latin America, that share is under assault from conversions to Protestant and evangelical denominations.

The 84-year-old pope’s schedule is considerably shorter than John Paul’s five-day visit, and it includes no events with Santeros, or leaders of any other religions for that matter.

A Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said Benedict’s schedule could still be tweaked, but he absolutely ruled out a meeting with Santeria representatives.

Father Lombardi said Santeria does not have an “institutional leadership,” which the Vatican is used to dealing with in cases when it arranges meetings with other religions.

“It is not a church” in the traditional sense, Father Lombardi said.

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