Pope Francis in Cuba: Parishioners recall when an innocent '¡Dios mío! was risky

What's the current state of religion in Cuba?

It's a question asked frequently outside Cuba, and the shorthand answer is: It's complicated.

Officially, the Cuban constitution protects religious freedom.

But for those in Cuba, the answers depend very much upon who is being asked and, often, upon their age.

Despite strong oppression after Fidel Castro took over power in 1961, some say their faith remained untouched. Luisa, 75, said she has never felt restricted by the state with respect to religious affiliation or practices. She was overjoyed to attend Pope Francis' Mass in Revolution Plaza on Sunday, September 20, the pope's first official, public event during his state visit to Cuba.

"It's a blessing for Cuba," she told Fox News Latino, adding that she is especially moved by the pope's concern for people on the margins of society.

However, most of the parishioners here and the other Cuban cities the pontiff visited have had to endure the strong anti-Catholic measures put in place by Castro in the first few decades of his regime.

“I was born in 1961,” said Berta, 54, moments after Pope Francis' motorcade stopped for a brief, unscheduled visit to her church, Sacred Heart, “and I remember that my youth card [signifying membership in the Revolutionary Party] was taken away just because I wore a religious pin on my collar.”

The Catholic Church, long identified with Cuba's wealthier citizens, took a vehemently anti-communist line shortly before Fidel Castro declared the country to be socialist in 1961. The government later accused prominent Catholics of trying to topple the leader. Public religious events were banned after processions were transformed into political protests, sometimes turning violent.

Mariluz, 62, who was raised Catholic and who teaches catechism and distributes communion as a member of the laity, has similar memories. “The early 90s were a difficult time for us,” she said, recalling days when she would meet with a friend in the park to talk about the scripture because she was too afraid to go to Mass.

But today, say Berta and Mariluz, the climate for people who identify as religious is much better. They no longer fear attending church, nor do they worry about wearing visible symbols of their faith; in fact, Mariluz wore a necklace with a charm in the form of a cross and a pin depicting Jesus over her heart. They attribute the improved religious freedom to the first papal visit to Cuba, that of Pope John Paul II in 1998. “It was really after that visit that we began to see, slowly, changes for religious people here in Cuba,” says Berta. “Before that you couldn't even say, 'Dios mío' here. Now, we're seeing more and more people in church.”

Before that visit, in the three decades prior, hundreds of foreign priests were expelled. The more than 150 Catholic schools that once operated across the island were nationalized. Many Cuban priests, including Cardinal Jaime Ortega, were sent to military-run agricultural work camps.

Armando, 45, was raised Catholic by his grandmother and agrees that he is able to celebrate the rituals of his faith undisturbed. Armando and his 15-year-old son, Yoao, rose early on Sunday to attend the papal mass, an occasion that was particularly significant, Armando said, because Yoao will make his first communion this month. He has also noticed a growth in the number of parishioners at his church, and hopes that this papal visit will further reassure Cubans who want to join a church community that it is safe for them to do so.

It's not just the Catholic faith that's experiencing growth in Cuba, though actual official numbers are hard to come by. On the same Sunday that Pope Francis offered his Mass in Havana, more than 200 members of the University Methodist Church of Vedado celebrated their weekly service with open doors and windows, joyful music spilling onto the street. They welcomed visitors, including this journalist, and demonstrated no visible concerns about their worship.

But not everyone feels so comfortable in their faith. Reiniel Hernández Sierra, Liadna Madruga de Armas, Yaniry Fariña García, Adriana Garcia, and Dario González Pérez, a group of friends and university students who attended the papal Mass, told Fox News Latino that Cuba still has a long way to go before it can fulfill the value of religious freedom established in the country's constitution.

“In the classroom, the directors of the school have come around to ask who's a member of the church,” says one of them, waving away a pair of young people who start filming her with a tablet while we're talking. “Who are you and what are you doing?” she asks them. “Journalism students,” they reply, before walking off.

She was skeptical of their claim, concerned that they were being filmed for expressing an opinion that might not be shared by the state.

“This is just one example of how Cuba can do better,” Hernández noted. He added, however, that the improvements he most wants to see aren't necessarily related to actual religious practice or expressing one's opinions freely. Instead, he says, what he would really like to see is more support for helping people deepen their faith. As an example, he said that it is difficult for religious people to find texts that are relevant to their religious beliefs. “We need books,” he said. “This kind of material just doesn't reach us, and when it does, it's very expensive.”

Hernández and his fellow students are hopeful that the words of Pope Francis's homily in Havana will serve to not only encourage more people to embrace the church, but also to further nurture the climate for religious freedom that Pope John Paul II helped cultivate nearly 20 years ago.

The AP contributed to this report.

Julie Schwietert Collazo is a freelance writer living in Havana.

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