Pope has tough fight against Santeria in Cuba

Juan Gomez, Santeria, holy man, cuba
Juan Gomez, a Santeria holy man from Santiago, Cuba
CBS News

(CBS News) SANTIAGO, Cuba - Pope Benedict XVI flew to Cuba Monday, only the second visit by a pope.

He got a warm welcome from President Raul Castro, who said he favors complete religious freedom. But the pope faces a big challenge in rejuvenating the Catholic Church in Cuba.

CBS News correspondent Byron Pitts reports that people came from across the island for the pope's evening service, with many arriving before sunrise. But the curious may well out-number the devout.

In hardscrabble Santiago, as in much of Cuba, making ends meet takes priority over mass. Catholic churches are often all but empty. While most Cubans say they're Catholic, far less than 10 percent are practicing.

Santeria is the faith of choice for many. It is a Caribbean blend of West African pagan traditions and Catholicism, born out of slavery. It is celebrated with everything from Latin songs that mirror American Gospel to animal sacrifices.

While Catholics have priests, followers of Santeria have holy men called "Spiritists."

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Juan Gomez is a holy man, machete in hand. His sister Elena Gomez is a Pentecostal Christian.

He wears an outfit similar to "what a black salve wore when he fled the mountains and became holy man. Red is for life. Black is for death. White is for peace. And the machete is to defend yourself."

Elena Gomez said she converted to Christianity after a serious illness. Christ, she said, answered her prayers.

"I used to visit Santeria priest," she said. "But in time I found it was not what I needed. Christ saved me."

The Gomez siblings say they respect each other's faiths.

"I will take care of her just as she would take care of me," Juan Gomez said.

One friend of the Gomez siblings, Roxanna Caballero, is Catholic, but also worships the spirits of Santeria. She says she would not be too concerned if the pope demanded Catholics stop using Spiritists.

"I have my own beliefs," Roxanna said. "My own way of thinking about things and nobody can take that away from me"

She seemed to speak for many Cubans we met when she said: "I live by three things: I am Cuban! I am a woman! I am a believer!"