Cuban Santeros wary as pope’s visit looms

John Paul II snubbed its priests in ‘98 tour

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In the 1960s and 1970s, as the communist government promoted atheism, Santeros risked jail if caught practicing the rites. Like members of other religions, they were denied party membership until the 1990s.

Lawyers, doctors, engineers and blue-collar workers learned to hide their ancestral beliefs and traditions.

But the 1990s saw a boom in Santero consciousness, and for many it is now a focus of national pride and a fundamental part of the Cuban identity.

Though the Cuban Catholic Church acknowledges Santeria as a mass phenomenon, John Paul’s decision not to meet the high priests reflected a judgment that because the faiths overlap, there was no need to treat them separately, according to church expert Tom Quigley.

“At the time of the 1998 visit, the official line of the cardinal, and I think the church generally, was that people who practice Santeria are Catholics,” said Mr. Quigley, a former Latin America policy adviser at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “They are just another - maybe deviant, but not absolutely heretical or schismatic - form.”

Santeros nevertheless took it as just another sign that on an island with a white majority, some still see it as a slave-barracks faith, an idea that goes against Cuban ideals of respect for diversity.

John Paul’s decision to ignore the Santeros, Mr. Cuesta said, was a decision “to deny our national patrimony … brought to us by men in chains who arrived as slaves in this country.”

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