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A decision not to meet with Santeros is in keeping with Benedict’s history of vehement opposition to any whiff of syncretism - the combining of different beliefs and practices - on the ground that it could somehow imply that all faiths are equal.

Some also blame historical racism toward Santeria’s Native American and African traditions. The pope may oppose these traditions, but they are an integral part of islanders’ daily life, even that of its Catholics.

All Cubans know that a woman dressed in yellow honors Ochum, a patron of feminine sensuality related in Catholicism to the Virgin of Charity. Believers crawl on hands and knees in processions of homage to Babalu-Aye, or St. Lazarus, protector of the sick.

Relations between Santeros and Catholics have improved since the early days of the island’s 1950 revolution, when Afro-Cuban worshippers were ostracized by both the church and the Communist Party, and those who dared to attend Mass decked out in all-white Santero garb were routinely ejected.

However, priests still give homilies critical of Afro-Cuban religious tradition.

The two faiths have arrived at a tense coexistence while inhabiting dramatically different spaces in island society.

Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the head of the Catholic Church in Cuba, consults with President Raul Castro on weighty political matters; Santero babalawos tend to the spiritual needs of the majority. Neither side talks to the other.

Underground practices

Scholars say Santeria, which was imported to Cuba through slaves brought from the Yoruba tribe of Nigeria, remains on the political margins because of its scattered, nonhierarchical nature, centuries of taboo and the latent racism that keeps Afro-Cuban faiths from being fully accepted in the fraternity of religions.

“Santeria is as much a religion as any other,” said University of Havana ethnologist Maria Ileana Faguaga Iglesias. But “its structure is not vertical. It does not have a maximum leader. It has no buildings, and it has never been part of any political power.”

When it first emerged on the island, prohibitions forced Santeria practitioners to hide their worship of “orishas,” or spirits, behind the names of Catholic saints.

During Spanish rule and in the early years of the republic, Santeros had no choice but to accept Catholic baptism because church parishes were the only ones keeping birth registries.

“Historically, at some point all Santeros had some Catholic practice. The Catholic Church was power and was official, and others were persecuted,” Ms. Faguaga said.

By the end of the 19th century, Santeria began emerging from underground. Today, it flourishes openly and has spread through emigration to the U.S., Puerto Rico, Venezuela and elsewhere.

Santeria “is very extended among the people, more so than when I was young,” said Monsignor Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, vicar general of Havana and great-grandson of one of Cuba’s founding fathers. “Not just in people of African origin, but also in people of European origin, whites, who today are also Santeros.”

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