In the rural town of Sandino, Cuba, people still travel by horse and buggy. More than 150 miles from Cuba’s capital city of Havana, Sandino is situated on the very western tip of the nation. Despite its ambiguity, Sandino recently received international attention when news networks like the BBC and CNN arrived to document history. Visitors scrambled to see the first new Catholic Church in the country since the Cuban Revolution 60 years ago dedicated.
St. Lawrence Church, located in Tampa, Florida, made this exciting event possible. According to the Tampa Bay Times, the parish led an effort that raised an impressive $95,000 for the construction of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Sandino. Donations flowed in from Tampa and from around the United States. On its website, the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg remarked, “Six decades after the Cuban Revolution, a new sign of faith.”
The parochial vicar of St. Lawrence Parish, Father Chuck Dornquast, attended the event. Father Ramón Hernandez, a former priest and Cuban immigrant who helped launch the fund-raising initiative in 2010, was also present at the dedication.
“It was a beautiful experience to be there with the people of Cuba and to see how the people responded to having their own church,” Father Dornquast said.
Before the opening Mass at the Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish, the place of worship’s key was given to Bishop Jorge Enrique Serpa of the Cuban province of Pinar Del Rio. Holy water was also sprinkled on the new building.
The interior of the new construction measures 800 square feet. The new place of worship can seat 200. However, during the recent dedication, more than 500 onlookers made their way inside. Laughing, Father Dornquast commented, “There were a few dogs too.”
The Cuban Revolution ushered in Marxist rule that forbade open expressions of faith. Places of worship were nationalized. Faith leaders were exiled. In the 1990s, however, Cuba’s Communist Party eliminated atheism as a stipulation for membership. The nation was declared a secular state. Pope John Paul II paid a visit to Cuba. Christmas was declared a national holiday. On its website, the Diocese of St. Petersburg disclosed, “This represented a shift in the communist regime to tolerate some expressions of faith.”
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom reports up to 70 percent of those living in the island nation are Roman Catholic. Before the dedication of Sandino’s newest church, its population of approximately 40,000 commemorated Mass in their houses. The new church consists of a galvanized metal roof and concrete block walls. The bright yellow place of worship might not seem impressive by U.S. standards. But, for those who will attend services there, it is a beautiful sight. Some people were seen crying as they entered the church.
“That experience, of seeing them walk into a space like that, that they can call their own, that alone was special,” Father Dornquast added.
While 70 percent of Cubans are Roman Catholic, 10 percent of the nation’s population are Evangelicals according to The Christian Post. Rafael Solano Silvera, pastor at Familia Cristiana Baptist Church, and his parishioners are fearful the Cuban government will destroy their place of worship. They’re not alone. Across Cuba, religious leaders, their families, and their congregations are reporting elevated harassment. They believe they’re being persecuted due to their demands for greater protection of Freedom of Religion or Belief, FoRB, in the country’s new constitution.
On February 24, 2019, residents of the island nation will vote either “Yes” or “No” in a referendum for a new constitution. At the present time, it’s under review. Disturbingly, the most recent draft removes references to freedom of conscience. It also considerably slashes protections for FoRB. Amnesty International’s Louise Tillotson commented to Al Jazeera that the wording “continues to be quite hazy and opens the door for criminal laws to be applied towards people that are deemed to be ‘subversive’.”
Pray that Cuba’s new constitution justly addresses FoRB. And, pray for Christians all over the world who aren’t legally allowed to freely practice their closely held Christian faith.
~ 1776 Christian