World Council of Churches Office of Communication|
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CUBA IS FIRST STOP ON ECUMENICAL VISIT TO
Praising the Cuban people for their assistance to others around the world, an international ecumenical delegation has begun a four-day pastoral visit to Cuba.
The delegation's leader, the Rev. Dr Konrad Raiser, general secretary of the World Council of Churches (WCC), said on arrival in Havana on 9 October that he had come to this Caribbean island nation to offer "recognition and admiration for the acts of solidarity offered around the world by Cuba, the Cuban churches and the Cuban people".
Speaking to a group of church leaders and government officials who received him at Havana's José Marti International Airport, Dr Raiser said, "Solidarity for you is not a political slogan, but a real expression of help for many years to peoples in Africa and most recently to people in Central America devastated by Hurricane Mitch."
Dr Raiser said he came to Cuba to pay a "pastoral visit" to the churches here. "The Cuban churches have been important partners of ours for a long period of time, and all my predecessors had visited Cuba," Dr Raiser said. "I know there have been very significant developments in the churches in Cuba in recent years, and I have come in order to know directly the experience of the Cuban churches and to get a feel for the life of the people in their communities."
Among church leaders welcoming the delegation was the Rev. Oden Marichal, president of the Cuban Council of Churches. "By coming here, you will gain first-hand experience about the life of the church in a socialist environment," Marichal said. "We know that although you can work had to learn about Cuba, unless you actually come here it's hard to know the truth because much of what you receive about us is often distorted or simply misinformation."
Marichal, an Episcopal priest who is also a member of the country's parliament, the National Assembly, suggested that it was especially significant for Europeans to come to what he called "one of the last bastions of socialism".
"You must have many questions and doubts about us," Marichal said. "I hope you can find some answers while here, but I encourage you to keep your doubts because that's a good way to keep learning."
The delegation was also welcomed by Caridad Diego, head of the Office of Religious Affairs of the Communist Party of Cuba. She said Dr Raiser was coming at a "good time" to learn more about Cuba. "You'll find we're not as bad as our enemies say, nor are we as good as we would like to be. The most marvellous treasure we have is a people who are dignified and proud of being Cuban," Diego told Dr Raiser.
Diego, also a member of the National Assembly and the powerful Council of State, said there had been "a positive evolution" among Cuban churches in recent years. She pointed to recent events, including the 1998 visit of Pope John Paul II and a country-wide Protestant campaign earlier this year as evidence of maturing relations between the churches and the ruling Communist Party.
The Protestant campaign culminated in a June 20 celebration in Havana's historic Plaza of the Revolution. Some 100,000 Cubans participated, including president Fidel Castro.
On Sunday, 10 October, the ecumenical delegation participated in worship services at two churches in Havana that belong to denominations which are members of the World Council of Churches.
During a morning service in the First Presbyterian Church of Havana, Dr Raiser heard the World Council praised for its historic support of the Cuban people.
"The World Council of Churches generously opened its doors to help us" when political tensions 40 years ago led to a rupture of relations between churches in Cuba and the United States, said the Rev. Orestes Gonzalez, president of the General Council of the Presbyterian Synod of Cuba.
The worship service was attended by ambassadors from several countries, as well as the head of the United States' interest section here. The US has maintained an economic embargo against Cuba for decades, and Dr Raiser told reporters after the service that the WCC has been "unequivocal" in condemning the embargo.
Among those participating in the liturgy was Monsignor Salvador Riveron, the auxiliary bishop of the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Havana. The archdiocesan chancellor, Father Ramon Suarez Polcari, was also present. He said relations between Catholics and Protestants in Cuba was "generally improving", and said it was "time for us to explore new forms of social ministry together" in urban neighbourhoods where delinquency, crime and drug abuse are starting to appear.
In a sermon during the service, Dr Raiser declared, "The walls that divide the churches do not reach to heaven."
Discussing the Jubilee vision of justice, Raiser noted that he was preaching on a national holiday that commemorates the beginning of the country's War of Independence in 1868. "We commemorate the beginning of the struggle for liberty in the last century, but also the ongoing struggle today for justice in our communities. This biblical vision has lost nothing of its power over the years," Raiser declared. "It still motivates us to struggle against the structures which produce injustice and exclusion among us."
In an evening gathering at Havana's Marianao Methodist Church, the ecumenical delegation joined Methodists from all over the capital in a lively worship service with liturgical dance, a children's rap choir, and spirited charismatic singing. The service began with a procession of Cubans of all ages and colors bearing baskets of Cuban fruit, a sign of thanksgiving for the blessings of God in an ethnically diverse country.
In a sermon, Dr Raiser gave thanks for "the abundance of spiritual gifts" he said he had witnessed in the celebration.
"The living fellowship is enriched by different styles of worship and prayer," he said. Dr Raiser challenged Cuban Christians to "live together accepting differences," arguing that such differences "enrich us rather than challenge or weaken us."
Such "generosity of mind" within the church, Dr Raiser suggested, "will help us reach out to those at the margins, without us first asking them their beliefs."
Methodist Bishop Ricardo Pereira thanked Dr Raiser for his visit, telling the ecumenical leader, "Although we are a church without many material resources, we are rich in spirit and in commitment to the Lord." Pereira told Dr Raiser that Cuban Methodists were willing to go wherever they were needed to serve the ecumenical movement.
Cuba is the first stop for Dr Raiser on a four-nation tour through the region. When he leaves Cuba on October 14, he'll travel to Haiti, Costa Rica, and Honduras.
Accompanying Dr Raiser in Cuba are his wife, Dr Elisabeth Raiser; Geneviève Jacques, a member of the International Relations team of the WCC; Marta Palma, a member of the Regional Relations and Ecumenical Sharing team of the WCC; Dr Walter Altmann, president of the Latin American Council of Churches; and the Rev. Carlos Emilio Ham, a president of the Caribbean Conference of Churches.
Contact: Kristine Greenaway, director of WCC Communication, Mobile telephone: +41 79 696 5047; daytime alternate no: +49 69 744 33 94 Fax: +49 6196 642 744
The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches, now 337, in more than 100 countries in all continents from virtually all Christian traditions. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member church but works cooperatively with the WCC. The highest governing body is the assembly, which meets approximately every seven years. The WCC was formally inaugurated in 1948 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Its staff is headed by general secretary Konrad Raiser from the Evangelical Church in Germany.