By Andrea Rodriguez , AP
HAVANA, Cuba — Golden rays of tropical sunlight slant through the caved-in roof of Saint Thomas de Villanueva chapel, illuminating tiles graced by the faces of saints. Vandals shattered the stained-glass windows and scrawled their names on the thick walls during decades of frigid relations between the Roman Catholic Church and Cuba’s communist government.
But a new chain-link fence surrounds the building, protecting it for a future that once seemed unimaginable.
The church is planning to restore the building to its former glory, along with more a dozen more churches, parish houses and other buildings, as part of a quiet reconciliation between the Catholic Church and the Cuban government that has brought relations to a historic high point this Christmas. Authorities have also given permission for the construction of the first two new churches in more than five decades.
After years of bridge-building behind closed doors, the Cuba-Vatican rapprochement burst into the headlines last week when the U.S. government credited Pope Francis with helping facilitate the secret reconciliation talks between the U.S. and Cuba. Francis wrote the leaders of both countries to invite them to resolve their differences.
Church officials and experts said the mediation and the renovation and construction of churches were essential parts of a fundamental shift in the dealings between the church and the communist state, which has been hostile toward religion for decades.
Developments ��are heading in the same direction: a new chapter in the general and economic history of Cuba, and also church-state relations,�� said Enrique Lopez Oliva, a religious historian at the University of Havana.
The church and the Cuban government were in a state of open hostility in the years immediately after the 1959 revolution that put Fidel Castro in power, a time when some anti-Castro military used churches to store weapons.
Some priests were sent to labor camps. Churches were confiscated and used by the government as warehouses, bakeries, dining halls or schools.
Openly practicing Catholics were barred from holding public office and membership in the Communist Party. For the faithful, even winning admission to a university could be difficult, since the ubiquitous neighborhood watch committees kept an eye on the populace.