Party time?

International | A downtown Havana celebration includes hymn-singing and a few prominent Communist Party guests

Issue: "Worse NOW than ever," July 24, 1999

Nearly 100,000 Cuban Protestants held an open-air celebration in Havana's Revolution Square late last month. Banging tambourines, joining hands, waving banners, and chanting "Christ lives" and "Cuba for Christ," they filled the square beginning at dawn in the culmination of a month of church outdoor celebrations across the country.

From front-row seats, President Fidel Castro and other senior government officials watched the festivities.

The event took place in the same locale as the historic 1998 visit by Pope John Paul II, which was attended by 500,000 Cubans. Like the pope's appearance, this rally was also broadcast live on state-run television.

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Church leaders said the event was a further sign of increased religious tolerance by Mr. Castro and his party. Raul Suarez, one church leader, said the event gave "clear evidence that there is a process of understanding, mutual trust, and opening, which will continue offering space to the church."

Since the 1959 revolution, the central square has been the setting for big political rallies and key speeches by Mr. Castro and other political leaders.

"I'd never have expected to be here in Revolution Square today for an evangelical celebration," said Oscar Mas, 56, a member of First Pentecostal Church. "When I started in the church, you could not do this."

The outdoor rally was organized by Cuba's 49 official Protestant churches, which number just over 250,000 members out of the island's population of 11 million. Active Roman Catholics number roughly the same, with most Cubans describing themselves as atheists.


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