Santeria church brings church into open UPI NewsFeature (1,200-picture MHP071302) a

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Santeria church brings church into open UPI NewsFeature (1,200-picture MHP071302) adv sun july 19 or thereafter By ELISABETH MALKIN HIALEAH, Fla. (UPI) Santeria, a church born in Cuba among west African slaves, brought to the United States by exiles fleeing Fidel Castro and sensationalized by Hollywood in a new horror movie, is hoping for credibility by opening a church. The establishment of the tiny church in a Miami suburb was not without protests. Animal-rights activists oppose the religion's practice of animal sacrifice, and some former followers believe it is the religion of the devil. Current followers, some of whom also attend Catholic services, worship deities, take part in rituals and shop for religious artifacts in "botanicas," where it is not unusual to see a picture of the pope over a counter containing skull keychains. Establishment of the church represents an attempt to bring the religion into the open and educate the public on its beliefs, practices, ethics and law, said Ernesto Pichardo, a Santeria priest. "As long as we continue to practice in our homes, we will continue to reinforce the idaa that this is not worthwhile and that it is a secretive form of worship," Pichardo said, sitting in the main room of a former car dealership. "This church is a compromise. It organizes, structures the faith, creates prestige, acceptance. As long as you put it within the confinements of American logic, then it does not appear to be a threat to society." But for many opponents, the issue is not acceptance. "We think the devil is here," said Michelle Ola, who has repeatedly visited the church. "We are here not to fight them, but to fight the devil." Word of the animal sacrifice rituals led opponents to complain about the sect's plans, leading to an emotionally charged debate in the City Council in May and daily verbal insults telephoned to the church. Santeria's origins lie in the worship of the deities, or orichas, of the Yoruba tribe in what is now Nigeria. When west African slaves were forced to convert to Catholicism on their arrival in Cuba, their religion was forced underground, where it adopted many features of the Catholic saints. Various deities absorbed saints' characteristics. The divinities, also popularly known as "santos," personify natural forces and patronize human endeavor. Other influences have left their mark on the religion, but the Yoruba imprint remains the most marked. Creation of the Miami church comes at the same time the occult movie, "The Believers," depicts a group of Santeria followers amid a wave of crime in New York City. Pichardo said the film is "Hollywood's idea of voodoo," and although Santeria does not use voodoo, the movie offers a generally accurate picture of the sect's belief. However, he said it could confuse viewers by blurring the line between fact and fiction. The group's modest blue-trim church building is dedicated to Babalu Aye, the god of infectious diseases, who can either cure illness, or if unappeased, can cause it. A popular divinity among Santeria worshipers, he is associated with St. Lazarus. Followers of the religion buy their Santeria religious artifacts at shops known as botanicas. A visit to one such Miami store reveals the diversity in worship. Stacks of crucifixes lie next to piles of shells used in divination rituals and coconut shells in which offerings to the deities are placed. Bead necklaces, in different colors for the different santos, hang from the ceiling. On the bookstand is a priest's manual, which features chapters such as "four-legged animals and birds that each santo eats," "explanation of shells," "instructions on presenting the rooster or hen to the santo," and a Yoruba-Spanish glossary. Among the more bizarre items at Botanica Nena is Seven African Powers Deodorant Room Spray. Crude pictures on the aerosol can show Catholic images with Yoruba names. The directions assure users the air freshener "does not have supernatural powers." At Botanica La Esperanza, a large picture of Pope John Paul II adorns the wall, and skull keychains crowd the counter. Miami's telephone book lists almost 30 botanicas, suggesting how widespread Santeria has become in the Miami Cuban exile community. Mercedes Sandoval, a professor of anthropology at Miami-Dade Community College who has studied the religion and its evolution in the Cuban community, suggests part of Santeria's strength lies in its eclecticism and adaptability. Worshipers range from those who reject all Christian belief and practice, to devout Catholics who seek out Santeria priests, commonly known as "santeros," in times of crisis. For example, she said, some followers will consult a santero before going to a doctor, to ensure the doctor's diagnosis will be correct. This mixing of beliefs makes explanation of the religion difficult. "When we are looking for Santeria and we are looking for orthodoxy, we are looking for something that cannot be cornered," she said.

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