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Voices from the streets of Havana

By Syed Firdaus Ashraf in Havana, Cuba
September 15, 2006 11:49 IST
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"Have you heard of Jesus Christ?" I ask.

"Who is he?" asks Bernardo in surprise.

"I don't know him," he adds.

I begin to explain about the Church and Christianity when he says, "Oh Jesus!"

"I didn't recall his name," he says, almost apologetically.

"Christians go to church on Sunday. I know that."

I ask if he believes in religion and pat comes the answer, "No."

Most Cubans, it seems, are not religious. Those who believe in Christianity go to Church on Sunday but it is difficult to find devoted followers of the Christian faith in Havana, the Cuban capital.

There are nearly three dozen churches in Cuba but the number of Christians on the island number less than those in countries in the vicinity.

Fidel Castro's Communist government has not stopped people from practicing religion but many Cubans don't believe in God, and are either atheist or agnostic.

Some Cubans believe in spirits, but they too are in few numbers.

The Cuban population is dominated by people of African descent. The island's Spanish colonisers brought in thousands of African slaves to tend to the sugar and other plantations.

The Catedral de la Hababa, an old church in central Havana, is a big tourist attraction, but it is closed in the evenings.

We encounter Alberto Separu, who tells us, "I go to church sometimes but I am not a very religious Christian. I pray but I don't think too much about religion."

Most marriages are ordained by the nation's civil laws, rather than Christianity.

The government takes care of everything -- from food to education -- and there is little to aspire to beyond the basic necessities of life.

But younger Cubans appear to have a greater cultural affiliation with their northern neighbours and one find them dressed as they would on the streets of New York.

Many Cubans want their eyes and limbs to be donated after their deaths.

Don't they fear death? Does the question occur to them where people go after their deaths?

"Never," says Bernardo, "This thought has never occurred to me."

And what about heaven or hell? "No! Why should I fear death? If death comes I will die. Who knows what happens after death? The answer to this question I will only know after I die," he laughs.

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Syed Firdaus Ashraf in Havana, Cuba