Faith and tradition in Cuba

Faith and tradition in Cuba

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The air was choked with smoke from incense and cigars while the faithful sipped sugarcane liquor from a gourd at the altar and spat mist over the crowd.

Niurka Mola, 50, stood at the altar in the cramped living room of a downtown Havana apartment block, calling on the spirits of ancestors to give guidance. Later, with followers enthralled by the arrival of the spirits, one man fell into a brief fit of convulsions.

Mola is a "godmother" in Cuba's Santeria tradition, which has its roots in the Yoruba religion brought to Cuba from West Africa by slaves.

. Havana, CUBA. Reuters/Alexandre Meneghini

Like many Santeria practitioners, Mola is also a Roman Catholic who goes to church twice a month.

She is delighted that Pope Francis will visit the Caribbean island on September 19 to 22. But she would like the pontiff to give formal recognition to the role of Santeria in Cubans' spiritual lives.

"Catholicism is present in all manifestations of Santeria," said Mola, a teacher at a daycare centre in Havana. “In the end, they have the same purpose: getting closer to God.”

. Havana, CUBA. Reuters/Alexandre Meneghini

About 60 percent of Cuba's 11 million people are baptised Catholic, the Church says, but experts say at least an equal number practice Santeria or another form of Afro-Cuban religion.

Santeria combines elements of Catholicism with the Yoruba religion and many Cubans identify with both traditions and their ceremonies.

. Havana, CUBA. Reuters/Alexandre Meneghini
Yensy Villarreal, 9, (centre) dances with friends to celebrate becoming a Santero following a yearlong rite of passage.

The Church has been tolerant of Santeria but remains wary. The Vatican does not recognise Santeria as a religion and Francis has no events scheduled with practitioners.

"The Catholic Church has no role in Santeria," said Dionisio Garcia, the archbishop of Santiago de Cuba and president of the Cuban bishops' conference.

. Havana, CUBA. Reuters/Alexandre Meneghini

Though monotheistic, the Yoruba religion that bore Santeria shares no common ancestry with Christianity, experts say. Catholic priests worry that some of those who attend Mass in Cuba do not accept Jesus or recognise the Virgin Mary, which are tenets of the Catholic Church.

"Being Catholic and being a Santero is not a contradiction for them. It is for us," said Gilbert Walker, a priest from Mississippi who has been working in Cuba for 12 years. "Although the Santeria religion uses Christian symbols, they're empty of Christian content."

. Havana, CUBA. Reuters/Alexandre Meneghini

Walker says up to half of his churchgoers in Old Havana practice Santeria. He says he often finds decapitated pigeons, meringues, coconuts and other ceremonial offerings to Obatala, the name of one "orisha," a Yoruba sacred being that has a Catholic saint as a counterpart.

"Santeros," a term often used to refer to all believers but technically reserved for those who have completed a year-long rite of passage, choose how much of each religion to follow.

. Havana, CUBA. Reuters/Alexandre Meneghini
"We will continue believing in God even if the pope doesn't recognise us as Santeros," says Yuris Landis, a 27-year-old nurse.

Dozens of Santeros trickled in for a recent afternoon ceremony in Havana to ask the dead for health and success for a fellow practitioner, 36-year-old Lyan Hernandez, one of many white Cubans who have adopted the Afro-Cuban religion.

As they arrived, they cleansed themselves of negative energy by splashing their foreheads and arms with perfumed water that stood on a shrine of dolls and figurines, each representing one of Lyan's ancestors, and a cross to symbolise God's presence.

. Havana, CUBA. Reuters/Alexandre Meneghini

Mola recited opening prayers to summon the spirits in Spanish and the Yoruba language, ending with the Lord's Prayer.

For five hours, a four-piece band pounded out Yoruba rhythms while believers danced African and salsa steps - whatever the spirits inspired them, she said.

Then the ceremony ended as casually as it had begun, without applause or fanfare.

. Havana, CUBA. Reuters/Alexandre Meneghini

Home ceremonies pick up where church worship leaves off, Mola said. But while Santeria followers easily venerate both the orisha and the saint they see before them, Cuba's clergy perceive this as a confusion of the two religions.

Against the odds, Santeria devotees hope Pope Francis might change the Church's outlook, given the changes the first Latin American pontiff has introduced at the Vatican since he assumed the office in 2013.

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Slideshow

A cactus, believed by Santeria followers to give protection, hangs on the door of a house.
. Havana, CUBA. Reuters/Alexandre Meneghini

A cactus, believed by Santeria followers to give protection, hangs on the door of a house.

Police officers check a shop recently robbed of Santeria articles.
. Havana, CUBA. Reuters/Alexandre Meneghini

Police officers check a shop recently robbed of Santeria articles.

Coffeeshop worker Yudi Linares, 37, takes a selfie.
. Havana, CUBA. Reuters/Alexandre Meneghini

Coffeeshop worker Yudi Linares, 37, takes a selfie.

Public park caretaker Idalberto Diaz, 55, sits on a bed before a Santeria ceremony, his 6-month-old granddaughter Lia beside him.
. Havana, CUBA. Reuters/Alexandre Meneghini

Public park caretaker Idalberto Diaz, 55, sits on a bed before a Santeria ceremony, his 6-month-old granddaughter Lia beside him.

An altar prepared for a Santeria ceremony aims to attract the spirits of dead ancestors to ask for guidance.
. Havana, CUBA. Reuters/Alexandre Meneghini

An altar prepared for a Santeria ceremony aims to attract the spirits of dead ancestors to ask for guidance.

Adriana Millarez, 26, gets some fresh air during a Santeria ceremony to attract the spirits of dead ancestors.
. Havana, CUBA. Reuters/Alexandre Meneghini

Adriana Millarez, 26, gets some fresh air during a Santeria ceremony to attract the spirits of dead ancestors.

Followers of Santeria undergo a brief fit of spirit-induced convulsions.
. Havana, CUBA. Reuters/Alexandre Meneghini

Followers of Santeria undergo a brief fit of spirit-induced convulsions.

Leannis Ortega, 20, (centre), and Nairobis Placers, 20, dance.
. Havana, CUBA. Reuters/Alexandre Meneghini

Leannis Ortega, 20, (centre), and Nairobis Placers, 20, dance.

Jaimee Vilarino, 3, (left), plays with a mobile phone.
. Havana, CUBA. Reuters/Alexandre Meneghini

Jaimee Vilarino, 3, (left), plays with a mobile phone.

A woman dances.
. Havana, CUBA. Reuters/Alexandre Meneghini

A woman dances.