Cuba's Baptists Hope to Expand Influence

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CWN.com - NASHVILLE, Tenn. - While reaction to the resignation of Fidel Castro was quiet in Cuba, Baptists are looking ahead to their work on the island.

"The Cuban Baptist conventions are strong with a healthy focus on sharing the Good News of Jesus with all Cubans," one Baptist worker said. "Regardless of changes, Cuban Baptists are capable of continuing to expand their influence across the island.

"The one thing we ask is that all Christians pray for them as they move ahead with their plans. Southern Baptists will continue to assist Cuban Baptists as they request and as we are able."

Castro, 81, ended his nearly 49 years of rule prior to Sunday's meeting of Cuba's National Assembly, which is expected to turn the presidency over to his 76-year-old brother, Raul, the country's defense minister and acting head of state. Fidel Castro has been out of the public eye and in declining health since undergoing stomach surgery in July 2006.

In a letter made public Feb. 19, Fidel Castro cited health problems as a primary reason for stepping down, but expressed his desire to "fight as a soldier of ideas." Castro, however, will continue to wield influence as first secretary of Cuba's communist party.

President Bush, during a six-day, five-country trip to Africa, said in a news conference in Rwanda that Castro's departure should lead to "a period of democratic transition" for the Caribbean nation.

"The international community should work with the Cuban people to begin to build institutions that are necessary for democracy," Bush said, according to the Associated Press. "And eventually, this transition ought to lead to free and fair elections -- and I mean free and I mean fair, not these kind of staged elections that the Castro brothers try to foist off as being true democracy."

The President also stated, "The question really should be what does this mean for the people of Cuba?" The New York Times recounted.

"They're the ones who suffered under Fidel Castro," Bush said. "They're the ones who were put in prison because of their beliefs. They're the ones who have been denied a right to live in a free society."

Until democracy is on the horizon, Bush said, "Political prisoners will rot in prison and the human condition will remain pathetic in many cases."

From a faith standpoint, restrictions on Christians have eased over the years, compared to the jailing of 53 Baptist pastors, including two American citizens, in 1965. According to one report, the enrollment at the Baptist Seminary in Havana rose from 54 resident students in 1999 to 610 last year in various commuter programs and extension classes for future pastors and church lay leaders.

The Catholic Church fared better under Castro, whose regime left Catholic parishes open and maintained diplomatic relations with the Vatican. A top Catholic official, Vatican Secretary of state Tarcisio Bertone, is slated to begin a previously scheduled six-day visit to Cuba Feb. 20.

Odalis Ramirez, a waitress who said religious persecution caused her to flee Cuba seven years ago, told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, "I lived many years in Cuba, and I can tell you that everything is based on vain hope, on the lie that we'll see something better someday."

The state's attorney general, Bill McCollum, noted, "The reign of Fidel Castro has been marked by the efforts of a man to hijack the government of his country and abuse those resources for his own personal agenda and gain. That he promised so much to his people and broke not only his word, but also the hopes, dreams and lives of several generations, is tragic, even criminal in nature. We have watched with deep sorrow how the people of Cuba were betrayed and we eagerly anticipate the day when Cuba will be welcomed back into the society of free nations.

"I hope and pray that the people of Cuba will action on the resignation of Fidel Castro to force a return to truly free elections, multiple political parties, a free press, and the release of political prisoners," McCollum said.

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