The most widespread form of religion in Cuba today is neither Protestant nor Catholic, but a syncretistic belief system called santeria—"way of the saints."

Santeria is the largest of the Afro-Cuban religions brought by slaves as a way to trick slave owners. While publicly confessing Catholic saints, the slaves privately venerated animistic gods and goddesses of their homeland. Believers worship these African gods, orishas, through plant, food, and animal sacrifices offered during chants and dancing initiations.

Santeria worship is conducted in homes, and as many as 3 million Cubans may be involved. Some Catholic priests welcome it as a way to attract parishioners to Christian teachings while others see it as demonic. Though evangelicals believe santeria is evil, the movement has found its way into mainline Protestant denominations.

Pablo Oden Marichal, vicar general for the only Episcopal diocese on the island and head of the Havana-based Cuban Council of Churches, sees no contradiction in mixing the beliefs, goat and chicken sacrifices notwithstanding.

"Why should I view santeria as a threat?" Marichal asks. "In one of my Episcopal congregations, three santeria people come with [ceremonial] dresses and preach."

There are more santeria priests in Havana than Catholic priests in all of Cuba. But with no hierarchy or centralized leadership, the religion has never been a threat to Castro. Santeria has spread throughout the Caribbean and to the United States, where there are an estimated 800,000 devotees of different nationalities.

In the United States, the Supreme Court in 1993 struck down a city ordinance and ruled that live animal sacrifices in religious rites are constitutionally protected. Residents in the Miami suburb of Hialeah had complained about the stench from animal sacrifices at the Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye.

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