Seventeen months after John Paul II's unprecedented masses in Cuba provided the first public outdoor services for Roman Catholics in nearly 40 years, it is now time for Protestants.

The government has granted permission for three weeks of "Cuban Evangelical Celebration," concluding with a gathering at Havana's Revolution Square June 20 that could attract 500,000 people. During the span, 18 open-air meetings with preaching and singing in plazas and stadiums will be permitted throughout the country, with at least two of them televised.

The Cuban Bible Society has printed 750,000 copies of the Scriptures to be given away at the events. Ministries and denominations, both from Cuba and the United States, have prepared evangelistic follow-up materials for distribution.

There has been more religious liberty since last year's papal visit, but Catholics have been the main beneficiaries (CT, Feb. 8, 1999, p. 18). The government canceled an international youth gathering of Baptists last November. And new church construction is still forbidden, meaning most evangelicals must meet in homes.

"There is scarcity, limitations, restrictions," Hector Hunter, general superintendent of the Assemblies of God in Cuba, told Compass Direct. "But all of this doesn't stop the church."

Indeed, the Assemblies of God, Cuba's largest Protestant denomination, now has more than 100,000 adherents, compared to only 9,000 at the beginning of the decade. The Assemblies of God has more than 2,000 house churches.

Even so, Cuba remains one of the least religious countries in Latin America, with evangelicals composing less than 10 percent of the population. Most Catholics are nominal believers, and many people follow Santeria, a syncretistic belief system.

Hunter notes that most evangelicals have not experienced outdoor freedom of worship during the four decades of Fidel Castro's communist rule. "I never proclaim that churches have to go through persecution to grow," Hunter told Compass Direct. "We are praying that these open-air meetings will be a help to bring the nation back to Jesus."

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