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    Thursday, August 03, 2006

    16th Century still alive and well in Cuba


    It has been 400 years since three men found a diminutive wooden statue floating off the Cuban coast bearing the label, "I am the Virgin of Charity."

    Countless miracles have been since ascribed to the image, which was declared the patron saint of Cuba and crowned by the late Pope John Paul II during a historic visit to the Communist-run island in 1998.

    But while the Virgin has evolved into one of the island's most important symbols, it confounds both the Roman Catholic Church and Cuba's Communist rulers. That's because many of her most fervent devotees say they follow the Virgin, but not the faith, and some use her shrine as a place to make anti-government statements.

    "I am not Catholic. I just believe in the Virgin," Marleny Faria, a 50-year-old seamstress from the city of Santiago de Cuba, said as she visited the statue's shrine. "I came here to ask for the health of my grandson."

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    Pilgrims lay wreaths of flowers at her altar and gaze adoringly at the 40-centimetre figure, dressed in an elaborate golden gown and wearing dangling earrings.

    In a room downstairs, devotees leave behind chunks of hair and letters to ask the Virgin for good health, love and success. They also deliver objects to thank her for wishes already fulfilled. Wheelchairs and IV tubes intermingle with concert posters, medals and baseball jerseys.

    "A lot of people trust more in her than in anything else," Despaigne said. "I was baptized when I was little, but I don't follow the Catholic religion. I follow her, because of her history, her idiosyncrasy, her miracles."

    The Virgin was discovered in the Bay of Nipe in the early 17th century before being brought to the village of El Cobre, nestled in lush tropical forests outside Santiago in southeastern Cuba. She resided in several small shrines, including one in a hospital, until the church at the peak of a hill in El Cobre was built in her honour.

    The church's current priest, Rev. Jorge Rodriguez Rey, recognizes that many who hear his sermons are not devout believers. Tourists and nonreligious Cubans from across the island certainly outnumber practising Catholics who go to the church, he said.

    "Those who take communion, or use the church for weddings and baptisms -- well, it's a small number," he said. "Many people who come here have an informal faith. We try to take advantage of their search for the transcendental, and educate them about Catholicism. We don't turn them away."

    Ernest Hemingway gave the Virgin the Nobel Prize he won for his literature soon after writing The Old Man And The Sea in his Havana hacienda.

    The mother of Fidel and Raul Castro left behind a small golden guerrilla fighter in the 1950s as her sons battled the government of former dictator Fulgencio Batista ahead of the Cuban Revolution.

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