.- As Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Cuba nears, local leaders of peaceful dissent say families were key to maintaining the country's Catholicism amid government repression.
“The process of de-Christianization was one of the initial objectives of the regime and was maintained for decades, because they knew that they could not dominate the people of Cuba if they did not empty them spiritually first,” said Oswaldo Paya, global director of the Christian Liberation Movement.
“And I don’t think they were successful thanks to families,” Paya told CNA.
His remarks on former president Fidel Castro's 1950s revolution and subsequent regime come as Pope Benedict heads to Mexico today for a visit that will include traveling to Cuba from March 26-29.
“For decades the State religion in schools has been atheism,” Paya said. “For many years, fifth grade textbooks claimed that science had proven that Jesus Christ never existed. In other words, they even falsified history.”
The result of this effort was that at one point “only around 40,000 people attended Sunday Mass, because we were marked, blacklisted in schools, universities and places of work.”
“It was a systematically anti-religious system that was supported by all the mechanisms of repression of a totalitarian regime,” he explained.
“But the Church continued to evangelize, we continue teaching the Catechism even though few children came to church.”
Jose Daniel Ferrer, the leader of the Patriotic Union of Cuba, agreed with Paya and said Catholic families are crucial. He noted that his own daughter, who is about to finish high school, “continues receiving an Atheist, Marxist education that is contrary to Christian principles.”
Ferrer said that during the eight years he spent as a political prisoner, his wife and his sister worked to counteract this teaching “with books, Christian literature and stories.”
“But it is hard because they are children and they spend most of the week in schools where everything is politicized,” he said.
Ferrer encouraged parents to put the words of John Paul II into practice when he called on the faithful to “demand respect for our right to choose the kind of education that we want for our children, because that is the foundation of the great moral, political, social and economic problem of our country.”
For Paya, modern Cuba is complex. Despite more freedom of worship and less repression for those who practice their faith, the Department of Religious Affairs, “which keeps the Church and our communities under observation,” continues to exist.
But he noted that while teachers are still cautious, “they are expressing their faith and no longer give in so easily to repressing children who are believers.”
While “present-day Cuban society has bears the marks of a very strong, very systematic de-Christianization process, it also has a Christian memory and religiosity that could not be uprooted,” Paya said.
“An example of this is the pilgrimage of the statue of Our Lady of Charity throughout Cuba, with millions of Cubans who came out to accompany it, and their faith and the depth of their feelings could be seen on their faces.
I think that is a victory, because it showed that there is no force strong enough to destroy the bond between God and the human being,” he said.