Dancing to the throbbing beat of sacred drums, the congregation circles a man lying face-down on the floor paying thanks to Babalu Aye, a deity in Cuba's Santeria religion. The African-rooted faith has existed in awkward overlap with Catholicism in Cuba since it was a Spanish colony. But on Sept. 19, 2015, followers cast aside their differences with their strictly Catholic neighbors to welcome Pope Francis to the island with open arms.
Around 70 percent of Cuba's 11 million people practice syncretism, the blending of traditional Christianity with African religions that arrived on the island with the slaves imported during colonial times. Only about 10 percent describe themselves as Catholic, once the dominant faith.
The Santeria tradition has survived both the hostility of the Catholic clergy and the state atheism the communist government decreed for more than three decades after the Cuban Revolution. Santeria's practitioners have traditionally been Cubans of African descent, but more and more whites are joining.
Novices must follow a strict one-year initiation ritual. They must wear white from head to toe and observe a series of restrictions that include refraining from touching anyone under any circumstances, including sexual relations. Worshippers keep altars at home devoted to their favorite divinities, and unlike Christians ask them for immediate intervention in their lives. When faced with difficulties, they consult their initiation godfathers or godmothers, who prescribe rituals to perform. Often they involve sacrificing a chicken, a dove or a young goat.Each ritual is different, whether it is to win back a lost lover, find a job, regain good health or harm an enemy.
Such rites can now be practiced in the open -- a sea change from the years after Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, when he declared the island an atheist state and unleashed a crack-down on both Catholics and "Santeros." But in 1992, Cuba abolished official atheism and amended its constitution to embrace the freedom of religion. (AFP)