The announcement that Fidel Castro was temporarily handing over his rule of Cuba surprised Christian ministries working in the region, but they are awaiting evidence of change in the communist country before increasing their presence. The government still restricts missionaries and is antagonistic toward the gospel.

The 80-year-old dictator gave up power to his younger brother, Raul, before undergoing surgery for intestinal bleeding, but Teo Babun, the director of Evangelical Christian Humanitarian Outreach for Cuba (ECHO-Cuba), emphasized that the transition is a temporary one.

"It is important for churches and Christians to recognize that what is happening in Cuba is not what took place in Eastern Europe," said Babun, who emigrated from Cuba in 1961. "It is a temporary cessation of power and not a cessation of the government."

Neither Fidel nor Raul have publicly appeared since the transition, creating increased speculation about the future of the Cuban government. Babun said that ECHO-Cuba, which is based in Miami, has created a hotline to keep churches and ministries updated with accurate information about the situation.

"We are encouraging churches to be informed so that if there is a transition, they can take whatever action they feel is necessary," Babun said.

Ministry needs

The current situation does not change the goals of The Cuba Florida Covenant or other Cuban ministries, many of which are based in Florida. They are concentrating on serving the Cuban church regardless of the political situation.

The Cuba Florida Covenant was established in 1997 as a ministry of the Florida United Methodist Conference, which reaches out to more than 200 churches in Cuba. Spokesperson Renee Kincaid said, "We have experienced many political situations in Cuba and tense moments between Cuba and [the] U.S." In an e-mail to Christianity Today, Kincaid continued: "The current situation is no different. The opportunities to minister in Cuba is up to God Almighty, and we don't believe that he is going to close doors to take his Word to Cuba."

The Florida Baptist Convention, which has a 10-year-old partnership with Cuban churches, is waiting for the governmental situation to change before adopting a new policy in Cuba. "It is a little bit premature because no changes have taken place," communications director Barbara Denman said. "Our ministry all along has been about providing pastors with the means and resources to build their churches, and we will continue to hold on to those goals that are already set."

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"The ministry opportunities are vast in Cuba," Babun said. Cuban churches will need the help of American churches to provide organizational and leadership training so that Cubans can train pastors and provide their people with humanitarian aid and Christian education, he said.

Struggling Cuban Christianity

The Cuban Constitution guarantees the freedom of religion, but "unregistered religious groups experience … varying degrees of official interference, harassment, and repression," according to a report released by the United States government in 2004.

Larry Rankin, the director of Mission and Outreach for the Florida United Methodist Conference, said that churches receive different treatment from the Cuban government depending on the strength of their relationship with the government.

"I know two or three cases of people who had near-death experiences because they were too vocal about things or resisting too much," Rankin said.

Babun said that the Protestant community in Cuba is deeply divided because only some denominations are part of the government-affiliated Council of Churches. Recent laws have curtailed the growth of the church and raised suspicions toward the government.

"The church is growing, but it is not growing at the level that it was growing even five years ago," Babun said. "There have been a series of laws introduced by the Cuban government over the past two years that have put a stop to some of the growth."

During his phone interview with CT, Babun received an e-mail from the pastor of a church in Havana that he translated from Spanish to English.

"We are continuing to pay attention to the event," the e-mail read. "Anything can happen. Raul continues without appearing in public, which is drawing attention. What would happen if Raul leaves the scene before Fidel? Some of us are wondering if the armed forces would take action. Please pray a lot for me. We are working under a lot of tension and vigilance that we haven't seen before. We continue to experience great economic problems in these circumstances."

Related Elsewhere:

More news elsewhere on Castro and Cuba include:

Hundreds Rally in Cuba to Support Yet to Be Seen Castro | Communist officials rally hundreds of Cubans in support of Castro as he recovers from surgery (Associated Press, Aug. 9, 2006)
Exiles' vision for Cuba a mix of hope, 'fantasy' | Amid hopes that Castro's successors could embrace economic reform, the take-back-Cuba movement also has turned pragmatic: The youngest exiles and children of those who fled Cuba say they don't necessarily want to live on the island, but they are planning ways to make money from its revitalization. (USA Today, Aug. 8, 2006)
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Cubans Adjust to Life Without Fidel in Charge | The initial shock of Castro's hand-over to brother Raul eight days ago appeared to be wearing off and Cuba watchers said they expected little change on the Communist island Fidel took over in a 1959 revolution. (Reuters, August 8, 2006)

Past CT coverage of Cuba includes:

Freedom's Wedge | What you can do to help persecuted Christians in Cuba. (Oct. 17, 2002)
Cuba No Es Libre | Methodist church members visit Cuba without a permit and face fines up to $7,500 each. (July 23, 2002)
After Castro | Church leaders worry that aid chaos will follow dictator's death. (Oct. 1, 2001)
Family Over Freedom | With Elián returned to his father, Cuban Christians say he should come home. Are they being honest, or fearful of reprisals? (April 27, 2000)
Send Elián Home, Say Cuba's Evangelicals | Church leaders who don't usually agree with Castro or the Cuban Council of Churches say family comes first. (April 3, 2000)