NEW YORK (Christian Examiner) -- Cuba's communist government under the leadership of Fidel Castro banned the importation and distribution of Bibles in 1969, but now the government has lifted the ban -- at least for a time and Raul Castro told the Pope he may return to church.
According to the Joplin Globe, the government of fortress Cuba has engaged in an "experimental program" allowing broader Bible distribution as it seeks to smooth relations with its Cold War foe, the United States.
The program began late in 2014, when the American Bible Society's Cuba Mission was allowed to distribute 60,000 Bibles on the island. Now, a Branson-based ministry is pumping an additional 250,000 Bibles into the pipeline.
Cecil Todd, who leads Revival Fires, told the Missouri newspaper his organization, which provided more than 2 million Bibles to the former Soviet Union and 250,000 Bibles to troops in Afghanistan, is now embarking on a project of sending a quarter million Bibles to Cuba.
According to Todd, the Bible Commission of Cuba is requesting the large number of Bibles for the island's 1,200 churches, but also for schools, prisons and libraries. Todd said the change in the government's attitude toward the Bible is surprising, given his son has been threatened with arrest for smuggling Bibles into the country.
Bible distribution in Cuba is not a new phenomenon. For more than six decades the Bible Commission of Cuba has provided a limited number of Bibles to Cuban churches, but always under the watchful eye of the government. With its history of economic depression, most Cubans could not afford a new Bible.
Now, millions are being shipped into the country. Whether or not the openness to the distribution of Bibles will continue remains to be seen. David Isais, who works with the Bible Commission of Cuba on behalf of the American Bible Society, told the Joplin Globe the government could shut down the program if distribution of the Bibles becomes "disruptive."
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Increased Bible distribution in the country is a sign of greater things to come, Joel Ortega Dopico, president of the Cuban Council of Churches, said. In December, just after the government lifted the ban on the importation of Bibles, Dopico told the Australian Bible Society, also seeking to provide 1 million Bibles for Cubans, that he believes Cuba is experiencing revival.
"It's a special moment, a moment of awakening, a time when the church is growing in a way that can only happen through God's Spirit, as He did back in those early days of the church," Dopico said. "We are living the word of God where it says that, 'every day the Lord is adding to the church those who are being saved.'"
CASTRO MAY BE SOFTENING TOWARDS CHURCHES
Since Fidel Castro's retirement due to his failing health in 2008, much of the daily administration of the country has fallen to his brother, Raul. Once the head of the state's security services and secret police, Raul Castro, has been known for his brutality and oppression of Christians and political opponents in general.
Four years ago, the younger Castro announced the Central government was loosening its grips on the nation's economy, following a similar move by its communist ally Vietnam more than a decade before. The government simply could no longer afford to pay its 11 million citizens for their work.
That move did not come with significant reforms in other areas, such as religious freedom. Cuba's constitution, like Vietnam's, guarantees religious freedom, but only so far as it serves the purposes of the state's control of society.
Individual cases of repression are still rampant, but in some cases, the government has shown a somewhat gentler side to the churches of Cuba.
According to a U.S. State Department assessment of religious activity in Cuba, published in July 2014, "the government eased restrictions on both migration and temporary foreign travel for Cuban citizens by eliminating previously required exit permits. Religious groups reported that this change allowed their leaders to travel more freely and increased two-way exchanges between local faith-based communities and the rest of the world."
"The majority of religious groups also reported continued improvement in their ability to attract new members without government interference, a further reduction in interference from the government in conducting their services, and additional improvement in their ability to import religious materials, receive donations from overseas, bring in foreign religious workers and visitors, restore houses of worship, and conduct educational activities. Religious organizations also reported that the government returned several church properties that had been confiscated by the state in 1961."
On May 10, Castro met with Pope Francis at the Vatican, ahead of the pontiff's planned visit to Cuba in September. Castro reportedly expressed affinity with the Pope's views on religion and said he may return to the Catholic Church at some point in his life.
"As I've already told my council of advisers, I read all of the pope's speeches," Castro said in a press conference after the meeting. "If the Pope continues to speak like this, sooner or later I will start praying again and I will return to the Catholic Church -- and I'm not saying this jokingly."
Castro said he will attend all of the masses held by Pope Francis in Cuba in September, "and with satisfaction."
"I left the meeting this morning impressed, very impressed by his knowledge, his wisdom, modesty, and by all the virtues that we know he has," Castro said.
What is unclear is which side is drifting toward the other. Pope Francis has claimed Marxist ideology is wrong, but has criticized "unfettered capitalism" and free market economics that result in poverty for some.
The views, he expressed, were entirely consistently with Latin American Liberation Theology, critics said. Earlier in May, Christian Examiner reported on the claim of a high-ranking Cold War defector that the theological movement was created by communists in Russia to infiltrate the Catholic Church in Latin America.
However, Francis was appointed bishop in 1998 and cardinal in 2001 by Pope John Paul II, known as a strident anti-communist.