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Cuba has experienced a spiritual revival since the 1980s. That's when the communist government eased restrictions on religious practice. And recently, President Raul Castro has been making nice with the Catholic Church, but Catholicism faces increasing competition in Cuba.

Nick Miroff reports on the country's evangelical movement.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Speaking foreign language)

NICK MIROFF: It's a humid Sunday night at the Buenas Nuevas Pentecostal Church, a converted apartment on the ground floor of a crowded building in Havana's Vedado neighborhood. Its rows of plastic chairs are packed, leaving some to watch from the sidewalk outside.

Light and music pour through an open window, just below a pair of black lace underwear drying on a clothesline.

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Unidentified Group #1: (Singing in foreign language)

MIROFF: The church was founded in the 1950s by Pentecostal missionaries from the U.S. who arrived just before Fidel Castro's revolution. The congregation had 15 members when it started meeting again in 1994. Now, it's up to 300.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Group #1: (Singing in foreign language)

MIROFF: It's one of hundreds of evangelical churches that now span the island, bringing an American version of personal salvation to a country steeped in Catholic traditions, African spiritualism and the Cuban brand of Marxism that Castro has preached for more than half a century.

Marcos Echevarria is the church's pastor.

Mr. MARCOS ECHEVARRIA (Pastor, Buenas Nuevas Pentecostal Church): (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: Philosophy and social principles can't fill your heart, Echevarria says. Neither can vice, nor witchcraft, he adds, referring to Afro-Cuban Santeria. At some point, there comes a time when you realize that only God can fill your heart, he says.

The congregation here is a cross-section of Cuba itself, spanning every skin tone and age group.

Twenty-nine-year-old Nadiesca Cisneros joined the church when she was 14. Her beliefs made her stand out back then. Now, she says there seems to be a little church on every street corner in Havana.

Ms. NADIESCA CISNEROS: (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: Cisneros says that in spite of all her problems, daily struggles and material needs, she sees God's hand in her life. He's healed her when she's been sick, she says. He speaks to her, he guides her. I've personally felt his presence, and that's what makes me a Christian, Cisneros says.

At the height of Cuba's militant atheism in the late 1960s and early '70s, religious believers were fired from their jobs and sent to labor camps for re-education. That kind of discrimination officially ended more than 20 years ago.

Since then, the number of evangelicals here has grown from roughly 70,000 to more than 800,000 today, out of a population of 11 million, according to the Reverend Marcial Hernandez, president of Cuba's Council of Churches.

Reverend MARCIAL HERNANDEZ (President, Cuba's Council of Churches): (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: We're taking back everything that was given away to the devil, Hernandez says, explaining the appeal of modern evangelical Christianity in Cuba, with its rollicking music and passionate sermons. Televisions used to be considered devil boxes, he says. Telephones were the Antichrist. Universities were the devil's lair, even beaches, Hernandez says.

Cuba's ongoing economic crisis and longstanding American trade sanctions have also driven the spiritual revival. Loopholes in the U.S. embargo allow religious groups to channel aid here, and Cubans looking to leave the island have often found an easier path through church networks.

Enrique Lopez, a religion scholar who teaches at the University of Havana, said Cuban authorities have always been a bit wary of evangelism, given its close ties to the U.S. and lack of a structured authority.

Mr. ENRIQUE LOPEZ (Religion Scholar, University of Havana): (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: The Catholic Church's relationship to the government is historical, Lopez says. And it continues to have a privileged position. Keep in mind that many of the leaders of the Cuban Revolution attended Catholic schools, including Fidel Castro, who studied with the same teachers I did, says Lopez.

Unlike many American evangelists, preachers here tend to veer away from politics as a survival strategy. But the movement's growth does have long-term implications for Cuba's future, especially given the presence of so many young people.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Group #2: (Singing in foreign language)

MIROFF: On Sunday afternoons at this church in Havana's Marianao neighborhood, hundreds of university students sing and sway at a special youth service. The students aren't allowed to organize Bible groups on campus, and they risk expulsion if they proselytize there.

Jorge Ortega, a pastor at the church, explains the restrictions that churches still face.

Mr. JORGE ORTEGA (Pastor): (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: We can't have services in stadiums, Ortega says, or invite foreign preachers to give sermons here. We can't have Christian schools. But we can minister in hospitals and spread the word of God in public places, like parks and buses.

Cuba's evangelical movement is especially strong in Havana's poorer neighborhoods where rural migrants have arrived and may be looking for a sense of community. The island's first mega-church is already planned for the Alamar district outside Havana, according to Pentecostal leaders here. It will have seating for 5,000.

For NPR News, I'm Nick Miroff in Havana.

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