"What kind of a communist dictatorship is this, anyway?" was the wonder of more than one foreign reporter as Cubans jammed the Plaza of the Revolution, where Pope John Paul II gave his final and most well-attended mass Jan. 25. Towering above a swelling crowd of more than 200,000, a giant depiction of Christ faced one of Che Guevara, Cuba's Marxist revolutionary hero. The pope used the opportunity to declare, "Cuba has a Christian soul"-a message carried on state-run television, which broadcast the address nationwide. When he spoke on religious freedom, the right of Cubans "to live their faith freely, to express that faith in the context of public life"-on the front row sat dictator Fidel Castro.
Yet for all the anomalies that attended the Roman Catholic leader's landmark visit, several Christian groups found business as usual in the communist nation.
An unidentified number of house churches in Havana were ordered to close by agents of Cuba's National Registry of Associations just hours before the pope's arrival Jan. 21. In addition, the Baptist Convention of Western Cuba, which reported the closings, was not asked to participate in an ecumenical meeting with the pope on the last day of his visit, Sunday morning, Jan. 25. The snub came just before the convention began its own national meeting in Havana Feb. 3. The Baptist Convention of Western Cuba is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention in the United States and is the largest Protestant denomination, with over 12,000 members, behind Pentecostals. The Eastern Convention is affiliated with American Baptist Convention and is, overall, more charismatic and less conservative.
Neither Compass Direct, which reported the closures, nor WORLD were able to confirm their extent. The number of house churches pressured to close was described as "numerous," and leaders of the Baptist Convention speculated that house churches of other evangelical denominations may have been affected also.
"When agents approached the house churches, they asked to talk to the tenants, who in general are faithful members of local churches," said a Cuban pastor who spoke to Compass Direct. "They were asked to sign a form that committed them to close the house church." The pastor asked not to be identified because of the ongoing risk of harassment.
Government officials gave no reason for the forced closures. The campaign received little public notice in a week dominated by the pope's daily services. Although the housechurch sponsors were pressured to sign the form and to hold no future meetings, for most of the leaders this was familiar territory.
"When house churches close, they may open in other parts of the city," said Tomas Diaz, an exiled Baptist pastor, now an American citizen, in Miami. He told WORLD that the house churches are often referred to as "preaching points" to distinguish them from established churches, under whose authority they are often formed.
The number of casas culto, or house churches, in Cuba began a steady increase in the early 1990s when the Cuban economy fell into steep decline. Fuel shortages hindered transportation to such an extent that church members began meeting in smaller groups, in homes easily reached by bicycle or on foot. Authorities would issue no building permits for the construction of new churches, forcing many to meet for worship in their homes. House churches flourished and are now estimated to number 10,000 nationwide.
These gatherings take place at odd times-often a weekday afternoon or evening-to avoid detection. They include Bible study, prayer, and singing. Some are led by an ordained pastor. Most, however, are led by part-time preachers or teachers who function as tentmaking missionaries. They receive support from a larger church or from exiled Cuban Christians abroad. Their fluidity is feeding a revival in Cuba, according to David Lema of the Miami Baptist Association.
Their growth led Cuban authorities to force pastors to close house churches sponsored by members of their denominations, or risk imprisonment.
Arrests of prominent house-church leaders began several years ago. Orson Vila, a Pentecostal evangelist who oversaw more than 80 Assemblies of God house churches, was arrested in May 1995 and sentenced to nearly two years in prison for holding services in his own backyard. Eliezer Veguilla, a Baptist pastor and medical doctor, was arrested in February 1994. He was ordered to confess to espionage or "sleep with a bear." The bear proved real (and very much alive), waiting for Mr. Veguilla when he was pushed into a basement cell at police headquarters in Havana. This was but one of many forms of psychological torture Mr. Veguilla was to endure during 47 days in prison-the bear was chained to the wall.
Exiled to Miami since September 1995, Mr. Veguilla fears the freedoms in evidence during the pope's visit may be another kind of psychological torture for evangelicals.
"The visit of the pope is very important for our country," he told Compass Direct. "In spite of this opening, we continue to hear proof that suffering and repression against the church in Cuba will continue."
Gerardo van Dalen, executive director of the Miami-based Pro-Martyrs Foundation, told the Miami Herald that the Evangelical League of Cuba was warned by the Cuban Secret Police to refrain from all evangelistic activity during the pope's five-day visit. Nonetheless, evangelical churches in Cuba were able to carry out the planned distribution of nearly one million tracts during that time.
The Western Convention in Cuba is also planning to carry out its convention this month, which will feature a number of Cuban pastors who have been exiled to the United States. Juan Perez, a Baptist pastor who was jailed for six years in Cuba but came to the United States two years ago, said even he was granted a visa by the Castro government to attend the convention. Nevertheless, Mr. Castro's shutting Baptists out of the meeting with the pope and shutting down their house groups is an attempt to divide and distract the evangelical churches, Mr. Perez said. The meeting, which involved other Protestant and Jewish groups the morning before the pope's final mass, included members of the Cuban Council of Churches. The Baptist Convention is not part of the Council.
Mr. Perez agrees with Cuba's Baptist Convention president, Leoncio Veguilla (Eliezer Veguilla's father), who said the government is "playing games" with his denomination. But in this high-stakes game, real lives hang in the balance.