December 17, 1998

With sackcloth and rum, Cubans hail Saint Lazarus

                  EL RINCON, Cuba (Reuters) -- Some dressed in sackcloth and crawling
                  on hands-and-knees, others quaffing rum and smoking cigars, thousands of
                  Cuban devotees flocked to pay homage on Thursday at the shrine of Saint

                  The annual pilgrimage to one of Cuba's most sacred icons drew large
                  crowds of both Roman Catholic believers and-- in greater numbers--
                  followers of the Afro-Cuban Santeria faith for whom Saint Lazarus also
                  symbolizes the deity Babalu-Aye.

                  The faithful, and the plain curious, began arriving at the chapel housing Saint
                  Lazarus' image in the dusty village of El Rincon, in agricultural land outside
                  Havana, late on Wednesday night.

                  Numbers peaked at around midnight when many streamed into the church
                  exactly as the saint's day began in order to fulfill personal vows.

                  The religious ceremonies were continuing throughout Thursday with a central
                  Mass to be led by the head of Cuba's Roman Catholic Church, Cardinal
                  Jaime Ortega.

                  The pilgrimage, traditionally one of the Caribbean island's most important
                  religious events, reflected the latent spirituality of many Cubans despite
                  nearly four decades of Communist rule that for a long time marginalized

                  Religious sentiment on the island received an unprecedented boost with a
                  January trip to Cuba by Pope John Paul, who included the Saint Lazarus
                  shrine on his itinerary. Open shows of faith are no longer considered

                  Many Cuban pilgrims arrived at the chapel exhausted and bleeding after
                  grueling treks barefoot, on their knees, or even dragging themselves along
                  the ground in some cases. Many wore the traditional sackcloth of penitence.

                  "I am doing this so that Saint Lazarus will save me from prison," said one
                  devotee, Lazaro Suarez Gomez, hauling himself forward on his knees with a
                  rock tied to his ankle. Suarez said he was being tried unjustly for his alleged
                  role in a car accident, but trusted that Saint Lazarus would help him.

                  Inside the church, Catholic workers led round-the-clock devotions, with
                  prayers, blessings, and rousing cries of "Long live Saint Lazarus!" or "Long
                  live Cuba!"

                  A Catholic nun, Elvira Garcia, sighed as she watched "santeros" drinking
                  rum and offering half-smoked cigars to Saint Lazarus, holding gaily-painted
                  Voodoo-style dolls, and even dripping candle wax onto their skins.

                  "They have adopted the Catholic tradition of Saint Lazarus, but made it their
                  own with rites that have nothing to do with Catholicism," she said. "But our
                  doors are open so that they may hear about Jesus Christ."

                  Garcia added that she and other Cuban Catholics felt reinvigorated by the
                  papal visit in January, and some subsequent pro-religious measures such as
                  Havana's permanent restoration of the Christmas holiday abolished in 1969.


                  "It has not been easy, what we have lived but we have

                  maintained our faith, and now we can express ourselves more openly. The
                  fear is going," she said.

                  Francisco Santos, 38, a driver, who said he was making an annual
                  pilgrimage since Saint Lazarus cured him of leprosy, saw no conflict in being
                  both Catholic and "santero." "They come from the same branch of the tree,"
                  he said, standing beside a cart with an assortment of images and offerings he
                  had dragged to the shrine from Havana 15 miles (25 km) away.

                  In both Catholicism and Santeria-- introduced by African slaves brought to
                  Cuba when it was a Spanish colony-- Saint Lazarus is associated with the
                  healing of sicknesses.

                  The pilgrimage was officially sanctioned, with a heavy police presence to
                  keep order among the crowds.

                  In a show of force by Cuba's tiny self-employed sector, vendors lined the
                  streets selling religious trinkets, flowers, pork sandwiches and peanuts. Fidel
                  Castro's government allowed a small private sector as part of a packet of
                  cautious "capitalist" measures introduced in the early 1990s.

                   Copyright 1998 Reuters.